I talked to my mother today – from across the country she’d heard about the murder of Oscar Grant and she was curious what the mood was like in the Bay Area. As we discussed violence and racism, I brought up the Richmond Jane Doe, the lesbian who was gang-raped in late December in what is widely acknowledged to be a hate crime.* In what must have been a difficult question, my mother asked me if incidents like that one ever impacted my ideas about being so visibly queer.
In some ways, the answer is no. Violent crimes are not special in whether or not they spur me to think about my own queerness and visibility; I think about how I look and how I present to the world every day. It is a constant and unavoidable issue for queer folks, especially those of us who feel more comfortable with non-traditional gender presentations. (Femme invisibility is a whole other animal.) Yesterday I met, for the first time, one of the folks for whom my partner and I house- and pet-sit. We stopped by to drop off some keys, and I recognized him immediately from the photos on the mantel. He, however, looked intently at me the entire time I was in his house, scanning me as though he wasn’t sure who or what I was. Earlier that day, I had answered the door to a solicitor, a young man my age, who spent half of his time on my doorstep trying, unsuccessfully to ask me out. The tensions of visibility are there every day. I don’t want to be mistaken or overlooked for who and what I am, but what if it doesn’t go well? What if the young man soliciting at my doorstep is a violent homophobe? What if I never get hired to house-sit again because the homeowner doesn’t feel comfortable with someone like me feeding his cats and watering his plants?
But here’s the thing: I cannot, and will not, live a life solely dictated by fear. I believe that some kinds of violence function like terrorism; they are a(n extreme) means of social control, by which they terrorize not only their victims but also send a message to an entire group. Police murder of young black men is one way that racism and power relations are inscribed; gang rapes uphold, extend, and enact patriarchal misogyny. The threat of interpersonal violence is scary, certainly. That fear figures into my urban life and lifestyle every day. But I work hard to interrogate that fear, and my reaction to it. Is growing out my hair and looking straight going to serve me, or is it going to serve a system that oppresses me? Is avoiding certain places, or certain people, or certain kinds of people, going to serve me, or is it very effectively keeping me in my place?
Sometimes these two things can co-exist; declining to walk alone at night in a neighborhood where I don’t feel comfortable may simultaneously keep my physical body safe AND enforce that neighborhood as one where women and queer people are not safe alone. This is always a question of judgment, of tension, of holding a balance. The balance I’ve been striving for lately is “appropriate caution.” It’s kind of like the judgment necessary regarding cars (in which, by the way, I’m much more likely to be injured); I can (and do) wear my seat-belt, drive moderately, and minimize my use of the phone while driving, all of which will help reduce the chances of injury or death while driving. But just as it would be ridiculous of me to refuse to ever ride in a car because of the safety risks, it would also be self-defeatingly extreme for me to radically alter my appearance (or behavior) in order to avoid being a target of violence. And while nobody would really care that much if I never got into a car again, my toeing the line of heterosexual femininity would sure as hell benefit patriarchy, institutional sexism, and the system of domination and oppression that has enacted itself so violently in the Bay Area in the past few weeks.
One last, quick point. I think it’s important that the sexual violence in Richmond is labeled a hate crime. It will be prosecuted differently, and it’s important for the (again!) visibility, to see that the powers that be are condemning prejudicial hate. However. I see rape – sexual violence as a whole, in fact – as a hate crime towards women. It is the most egregious, violent arm of a system that devalues and degrades women and femininity – ‘rape culture’ – is the shorthand for that. (Well, so is ‘patriarchy.’) Need proof that we live in a rape culture? I emptied my spam email folder as I was writing this post – in fact, directly after looking up the two articles that describe the hate crime in Richmond – and in it was an ad for penis enlargers. “get huge to gang-rape her!” cried the subject header. I feel sick again, just typing this.