When we used to get street harassment

cn: anti-gay slurs and harassment

My husband and I have been together since 2011.  And it used to be that when we walked around in the streets and used public transit, we’d occasionally get harassing comments.  Someone would yell out “fags” from a passing car.  People would stare at us, and then make negative comments just as they were getting off the train or bus.  Homeless dudes would rant, and I’d come to the realization they were ranting about us.  One time a girl hugged us while her friend took a picture.  In one especially memorable incident, a middle-aged lady accused my husband of being my father.  These incidents would happen about once a month.

And then after about a year, it suddenly stopped.  I don’t know what changed.  At first it seemed like something must have changed about us.  Maybe we were walking in the street less often, or walking in different neighborhoods.  Maybe the visible age gap between us shrunk.  Maybe I was mentally blocking it out.  But in hindsight, it seems like what changed was the times.

Years after the harassment stopped, there was one final incident that happened around 2015.  Somebody called my husband a faggot, and then swung a bag at his head.  My husband was shaken, and a police report was filed, but nobody was hurt.  And that was the end of it.

All of these incidents occurred in San Francisco, Berkeley, or somewhere between.  These are relatively liberal cities known for high densities of gay men.  Because I didn’t know any better, I was initially surprised to get any street harassment.  Then I was surprised again when it stopped.

Many cis men will never understand what it’s like to experience street harassment.  I didn’t understand it until I felt it myself.  The experience of harassment extends far beyond specific incidents.  There is also the fear that harassment is just around the corner.  Even now, when the harassment is gone, we never know if it is truly gone.

Likewise, I will never understand what it’s like for people who have experienced harassment far worse than us.  If you lived in a different place, or a different time, or perhaps at a different intersection of race, gender, age, and class…  For us, harassment was a nuisance.  For others, harassment can be centralizing.

These days, I occasionally hear young queer people talking about anti-gay harassment like it’s the thing that earns you your queer card.  Street harassment is what gives gay men the right to be queer, and anybody who experiences less than that is simply appropriating queer struggles.  This fails to appreciate the sheer range of harassment experiences.  Some people experience a lot of harassment, some very little.  Some of us experience harassment, and then it stops and we don’t know why.  Some people frequently experienced street harassment well before they were ever visibly queer.  How much we experience, and how it impacts us depends on time, place, intersection of identities, and sheer chance.  If experiencing less harassment is a sign of appropriation, then I’d have to conclude that each generation is appropriating from the previous one.  That’s appropriation I can live with, especially if it means people’s lives are improving.


  1. dangerousbeans says

    The thing i find strange about street harassment I’ve received is the class aspect. I’m an upper-middle class trans-woman, and all the harassment I get is from visibly poor men. I occasionally get some dude in a suit glaring at me, but they don’t say anything, the ones that threaten me all look poor.
    I can’t help but feel there’s an element where it’s not only that i am trans, it’s also that i’m visibly wealthier than them

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’m cis straight, but experienced or observed a couple of such incidents.

    Many years ago, I acquired (forget how) a cross-country skiing outfit. A couple of friends pointed out that it looked a bit “frou-frou”, but I thought that no more than shrugworthy; it was comfortable. Then out skiing in the park one day, a young man passing by yelled “faggot!”. I briefly considered stopping to continue the conversation. I don’t mind that someone might think I’m gay, but I certainly do mind obvious hostility from a stranger. But the skiing was more important…

    Some years later, I was walking home late at night from my girlfriend’s place. My route took me through Toronto’s gay village. Then I see a couple of guys walking towards me, and one says “seen any faggots we can beat up?”. I stopped, looked at him and said “What?” rather curtly. They just carried on walking. I’ve sometimes wondered what might have happened if I’d shown any nervousness. I actually might have, but what the guy said took me completely by surprise.

    The last one was quite surprising as well. This time walking to girlfriend’s place in the daytime. Four gay blokes a bit ahead of me. One of them sees a young woman pushing a pram on the other side of the street, and yells, with real venom, “breeder!”, twice. Part of me wanted to blurt out “so was your mother”, but I suspected that wouldn’t go down well.

    What they all had in common: white men in their late teens or early to mid twenties.

  3. says

    @dangerousbeans #1,
    My experience is that a lot of it comes from lower-class, or straight-up homeless people. I don’t think we are visibly wealthy though. I figure what it is is that they have less use for self-censoring.

  4. says

    I find it odd how people are so willing to jump to conclusions about strangers they see on the streets. Unless two people are holding hands or kissing in a public place, there’s no reason to assume that they are a couple. They might be friends or siblings or work colleagues or whatever else.

    On numerous occasions, people have assumed that I must be a lesbian (that’s false, I’m a genderqueer person with a preference for a masculine lifestyle). Oddly enough, they made this assumption after hearing me talk favorably about LGBTQIA rights. Nobody has ever assumed that I must be a lesbian after seeing me interact with some female friend. Apparently, women are expected to have female friends, and two female-looking people in some public place don’t automatically mean “lesbians.”

    Yet whenever I am in a public place with some male friend or work colleague, people will jump to conclusions that we must be a couple (statistically, majority of my friends are male). The most annoying incident happened when I was with my employer. I was in my early twenties; he was about sixty or so. He hired me to glue silver leaf on some walls. On our way to work, we stopped at a gas station, and another elderly guy approached us. He had assumed that we must be a couple and started berating my employer for abusing and exploiting me and lectured him about how relationships with age gaps are wrong. The harassment was directed at my employer, I was seen as the victim who needed defending.

    Some of my friends are older than me, and I feel safe being in public places with female ones—people will just assume that we must be a mother and daughter or something similar. With male friends, however, I sometimes tend to be cautious not to be visibly affectionate. Not that it helps much. Here’s one conversation I had while I was attending a conference together with a male friend:
    “Is he your father?”
    “Are you two married?”
    At this point the lady seemed a little uncomfortable, and carefully didn’t ask the obvious follow up question: “Are you a hired sex worker?” I didn’t say anything else either, because I’m under no obligation to justify my choice of friends to some random stranger. Besides, even if I did choose to have sex with a person who was old enough to be my grandfather (so far I haven’t), that would still be my choice and nobody else’s business.

  5. cartomancer says

    It’s a weird thing, and a bit messed up too, but I know exactly what you mean about seeing harassment as a mark of belonging. I sometimes find myself thinking that way, and wonder what on earth I’m doing. But I do. I genuinely do feel pangs of jealousy sometimes. Which is pretty stupid, I know.

    I’ve never had any abuse myself, but I’ve seen gay couples and sometimes gay single friends get it quite a lot. Indeed, I was leaving a gay venue last night and saw a couple who had left just in front of me get some shouted abuse (that was from a homeless person too, or at least someone with a fondness for drinking cheap alcohol in secluded doorways).

    I’ve even seen straight friends get it when I’m with them, despite me being quite phenomenally gay, right there, and utterly ignored. In fact, on one occasion, I had a similar experience to Rob Grigjanis above, where two young men (though we were about the same age) were wandering around looking for gay people to attack, and asked me if I’d seen any. I’m a dramatic sort with a short temper and little sense of self-preservation, so I stared at them and told them that I was gay, daring them to try. I did not expect them to laugh, say “no you’re not”, and move on chuckling to themselves. What little survival instinct I had kicked in at that point, and I decided not to hurry after them and press the issue.

    I suppose in my case these feelings are part of a wider sense that I’m just not accepted as gay in society – either by straight society in the mainstream, or by other gay men. Which is really quite depressing. When I finally plucked up the courage to come out to my friends and my brother in my mid 20s, none of them believed me. It took years to try to convince them, and I’m not sure some of them believe it even now, a decade on. When I go to gay venues, or on gay dating and hook-up apps, nobody talks to me. I might as well be invisible. Most painfully, I’ve never had a boyfriend, despite trying my hardest for years on end. It almost feels like I’m out of phase with the gay world, and none of my attempts to engage with it have any causal force whatsoever.

    So when even the gay-bashers aren’t willing to to recognise me for what I am, it feels like a final, profound, twist of the knife. There is also the fact that pretty much the only thing I have felt would finally convince people is me being in a couple, with a boyfriend as a visible manifestation of my sexuality, and since it’s couples together who get it the most, the abuse sparks my inner jealousy towards them. It’s another mark of success as a gay man that they have and I have tried to have for over ten years. It makes me feel inadequate and pathetic in my sexual identity, and lord knows I feel that way enough already.

    The jealousy is all-consuming now. Particularly towards the man who has been with my beloved best friend and intended for fifteen years, preventing us from being together, but towards gay men who can secure relationships in general. I hate myself for it. I know it is an unworthy emotion. But it is difficult to stifle, and won’t go away. To stop it making me do something vile, I now channel it into vociferous public denunciations of the people doing the harassing when I see them. The man who shouted at the couple last night got a torrent of righteous fury from me that quite unnerved all who were present. It was cathartic in a way, but I’m not sure I helped very much. Later on I did feel bad for shouting at a homeless person.

  6. says

    cartomancer @#6

    Oddly enough, I occasionally feel jealously towards LGBTQIA+ people who look “normal” and can easily visually blend in with the straight cis people. They can travel anywhere around the world knowing that they are safe and unless they do something to out themselves, then won’t get harassed, beaten up, or even arrested (in countries where being homosexual is illegal). Whenever they encounter some homophobe, they can choose whether they want to engage this person or whether this time they prefer to skip the headache and go on with their daily life. Having a choice about this seems like a good thing. For people whose visual appearance automatically informs the entire world that they are either trans or homosexual there is no such choice. Instead we can only hope that today we will get lucky and won’t experience any forms of abuse.

    Of course, grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I can imagine how your identity being dismissed can be painful.

    Here’s the version I tend to get: “Do you dress as a dude because you are a lesbian?” Me: “No, I’m not a woman, so I cannot be a lesbian either.” Them: “What? But you are a woman.”

  7. Olga Moonshiner says

    People are very angry, very aggressive and hate themselves very much. When a person is dissatisfied with himself, he breaks down at all. When society sees that someone is different from them – they consider it a threat that must be eliminated. Down with all the incomprehensible! – chanting each of them. People believe that a marriage of convenience and sex in public places is normal, and loving someone of your gender is dirty. Dissatisfied people will be always and everywhere, and it is not your fault. It is the fault of their parents, who did not teach them tolerance and humanity.

  8. anothersara says

    For what it’s worth, as a teenager growing up in San Francisco, I heard anti-gay-male slurs a lot more often than once a month. Since I’m not and don’t look like a gay male, the slurs were never directed at me, and maybe people were less inclined to censor themselves around me for that reason.

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