The other day, I went on a date. My date was lovely, and brilliant, and as awkward as me and it was wonderful. The date itself was really fun. It was also my first (successful) date with someone the same sex as me – I’ve fallen into straight, long term, monogamous relationships often enough that I hadn’t really had time until recently to explore dating a lot of different kinds of people.
But what does that have to do with my post title? This:
We were walking through a sketchy-but-not-dangerous part of town late at night, having an absolutely fascinating conversation, and I kept thinking “I’d really like to kiss this person”. And there were a few times when I was about to turn and lean in and say “I think you’re absolutely beautiful and I’d really like to kiss you right now”. I was confident that this would be well-received, I was totally ready to go for it … and then I’d look around and see a few people around, walking alone or in groups, sitting the a parking lot laughing and smoking, standing in doorways just watching cars and people go by. And I felt unsafe. I thought “what’s homophobic crime like in this area? In Toronto in general? Can I be absolutely certain that none of these people will see me and threaten me because I’m queer? Beat me up? Kill me?”
So I waited. I waited until we were about to part, standing under the comforting lights of the subway entrance, within sight of the booth attendant and the video cameras and a few meters away from a “call for assistance” panic button. And we kissed, and it was wonderful, and then I got on the subway and headed home.
It wasn’t a big event, and it wasn’t different from what thousands of people go through every day, and that was why it made such an impact on me. These were my streets. I’d walked them a hundred times before, and even though I’m in a group with a higher risk of being targeted for random violence, I’d been cautious and I’d always felt safe. For the first time ever, I’d had that taken away from me. It wasn’t the experience of fear; I’ve been afraid before, when I walked through areas with malfunctioning street lights or when I walked anywhere on a depressed or high anxiety day. I wasn’t even particularly afraid then. It was knowledge that this wasn’t just fear. That there was a very real chance that I was truly unsafe, that simply being who I am on a public street could make me the target of hatred and possibly violence.
I thought, before this happened, that I understood that this sort of thing is the reality for some people. Maybe I hadn’t personally experienced it, but I knew the theory, I’d read other people’s accounts, and I was secure in my assessment that while I certainly don’t know as much as someone who lives with it, I “got it” at some basic level.
There are some things that’s true for. The first time I went rock climbing, it was a new experience, but my basic knowledge of what rock climbing is like didn’t change. I learned a few knots, I felt the way my muscles responded to the challenge. Rock climbing for a few hours that day didn’t give me any kind of a deeper understanding of what it is to climb. Descriptions and analogous experience (trees, walls) was enough.
This didn’t feel like that. It was something new, and I realised that before this experience, I fundamentally didn’t understand what it means to feel unsafe to be who you are. I still don’t, because there’s so much more to it that I haven’t gone through, because the idea that one moment of discomfort can possibly be compared to a lifetime of looking over your shoulder is utterly absurd, not to mention insulting.
It really drove home to me that sometimes, being privileged means you truly and fundamentally can’t understand what it’s like not to be. Which makes it more important than ever to shut the fuck up and listen. And that saying “you’re privileged along that axis, you don’t understand” is not an insult, is not questioning a person’s ally-ship or goodness or intelligence, it is a raw and unrefutable statement of fact.
I could say that what I learned from this experience is what’s it’s like to have that happen to you, but that would be a lie. What I learned is that I have no idea what it’s like. I will probably never know what it’s like. I hope I never forget that.