A man, a book, a slur and me

A man, a book, a slur and me

I have always had close female friends. Maybe it’s because I grew up with staunchly feminist parents, or maybe it was just the luck of the draw, but I never felt alienated from other girls or like I was just “one of the boys.” My closest friends have been women and girls as far back as I can remember. Of course, as we matured alongside each other, we fought, we gossiped and we hurt each other’s feelings. That’s part of growing up with people and, though it is often painted that way, I don’t feel like conflict in childhood and teen friendships is a gendered thing at all. We fought but we also shared, supported and played together, being there for each other during pivotal moments of our young lives and into our early adulthood.

I know not all women are as lucky to have always had or wanted a group of close female friends to support them. The value and experience of female friendship is a sorely under-discussed topic and leaves many feeling like other girls and women are their competition and their enemy, rather than their allies. It is only recently that the importance of and joy in women’s friendships has become mainstream and celebrated, and nothing makes that clearer than Kayleen Schaefer’s new book, Text Me When You Get Home, which explores the evolution and importance of platonic relationships between women.

I was thoroughly enjoying reading this wonderful, thoughtful and intelligent book about the power in women’s relationships with each other on the tube on Wednesday. I was coming into work a little later than usual after a slightly frustrating doctor’s appointment and used the tube journey – I usually cycle – to read my book, something that I’m always happy to find an extra twenty minutes for.

As I was reading, I noticed the man next to me trying to get a look at the cover. It would have been hard to not notice him trying to sneak a peek, as he bent almost double in order to do so. I totally understood the impulse; I too am always curious about what other people are reading on the tube. Even so, I’d never contorted myself in an extremely obvious way to get a look at a book’s cover, but I figured he was just really curious.

I love sharing books, so I tilted the book up to make it easier for him to get a look. We spent the next few stops this way, with him continuing to glance over my shoulder to read along with me and look at the front while I made my way through the next few pages.

Some people might not like to feel the eyes of others reading over their shoulder, which is totally understandable, but I truly didn’t mind. I was pleased, actually, that this man was clearly so interested in a book about women’s friendship. I thought that that was great and was happy to have him looking at passages alongside me.

When we reached my stop, the doors opened and I made a move to get off the train. I turned around a little to give this man a smile. He caught my eye just as I stepped off the train, and spat, “DYKE, DYKE, DYKE,” at me as I stood on the platform.

My mouth actually fell open in shock. I looked at him as the doors prepared to close and yelled, “what the fuck?!” before realising that the train was moving away. He sneered at me until the carriage was out of sight.

What the fuck, indeed. What the fuck?

I looked around as I started walking toward the exit of the station and into my office. I am lucky that my various privileges shield me from experiences like this most of the time and that I feel enough confidence in myself that I was not really scared or upset, but shocked and extremely pissed off.

I was especially angry that this man had robbed me of a proper response. In hindsight, I wish I reacted quickly enough to jump back on that train, ridden another stop or so and confronted him. I like to think I’d have called him out properly, if he’d given me the chance.

But he didn’t. He waited until I was off the train and he was about to disappear into the next tunnel before yelling an awful slur at me, all for reading a book about women’s friendship on the tube. I can’t fully unpick the homophobic and misogynist implications of his words from each other (not that I need to), in that ‘dyke’ is clearly a homophobic slur but he was referring to a book about platonic female relationships, which he knew, because he’d spent fifteen minutes reading the book cover, where that is clearly stated. Bigotry doesn’t always make sense. Whether he was being offensive because he thought I was a gay woman or just a woman at all was unclear given the context, but again, it doesn’t matter, because it’s awful thing to say and subjugates gay women whether he meant to or not.

There is a beautiful irony in what happened next. I stood in Blackfriars station, whipped out my phone and opened the group chat I share with three of my friends from university. We talk in this group every day, and the four of us meet up for a weekend every few months or so for food, laughs, bad Netflix movies, political rants and our little book club. It is gorgeous. Community can be hard to find living in a huge city after university, but I’m so happy to have this little group to continue being part of and to rely on in moments like this.

“Guys,” I typed, “I just had an insanely fucked up interaction on the tube.”

I sent a picture. “So I’m reading this book…”

I told them the story and over the next few hours the responses trickled in, all varying degrees of, again, “what the FUCK?”

I was so, so grateful in that moment to have a group of girlfriends to share this with, who unpicked the whole situation with me and let me vent – and vented alongside me – about just how much this was a supremely terrible and unpleasant thing for this man to do.

I am under no illusions that many people still harbour awful thoughts and opinions about gay people, women and any number of others with marginalised identities and characteristics. I am saddened, but not shocked, that I met someone who apparently despises gay women (a group that I am not part of, though I obviously support entirely. I have no problem with being perceived by someone to be a gay woman other than the horrific and unpleasant manner with which he expressed that perception).

However, what is shocking is that he either actively chose to express that opinion, loudly and repeatedly, or felt so angry about the sight of a woman reading a book about women that he was unable to stop himself from shouting a homophobic slur at me, repeatedly, in an enclosed public space. I’m not sure which is worse.

I can’t imagine how much rage he must carry around in him, to be prompted to say something so aggressive and offensive because a woman was… reading a book about female friendship. The thought that he is walking around, interacting with women, who may or may not be gay, all while secretly (or not so secretly) holding these awful, hurtful views blows my mind.

I was reading a book about platonic female relationships (which he maybe thinks are the same as romantic relationships between women? Who can say? I am still confused) and that was enough to make this man outwardly, vehemently angry. What?

He went on about his day, probably seething himself at the thought that there was a woman out in the world daring to read about and love women herself, platonically or romantically. It gives me chills to think that he went onto his workplace (he was wearing a business suit) where he might work with – or worse, manage – any number of women, gay people or people who fall into both of those categories. When I first moved to London after graduation, I worked for a raging misogynist, who used to bait me with poorly considered sexist statements into arguing with him at work. I now work for a kind, progressive, liberal man, and the difference in my experience at work could not be starker. My heart goes out to anyone working with or for someone carrying that much bigoted, hurtful rage inside them that will almost certainly spill out sometimes into their professional and personal relationships.

The last few decades have seen a lot of progress for women, something that we celebrate today, on International Women’s Day. Obviously, we have seen more progress for some groups of women than others, but broadly, I do believe we are moving in the right direction (or at least, some of us are). But despite any number of advances in women’s rights, it only takes one angry man shouting a slur at you in public for daring to read a book that puts women and their interactions with each other front and centre to remind you that there is a very long way to go.

I am very lucky for a number of reasons, not least that in the grand scheme of oppression that women can face, I’m hovering somewhere close to the smallest amount. But outside of the more fundamental considerations of being white, able and well-educated, I am so lucky to be surrounded, today and every day, by a huge number of awesome, intelligent, kind, funny, creative and tough women, who improve my life in immeasurable ways. I am lucky to have a mother who has set the most stunning example of what women are capable of, in running a business with offices all over Europe and showing me what it means to be confident, outspoken and, literally, in charge. I am lucky to have a partner, father and brother who know how to have relationships with women that are mutually supportive, loving and not held back by antiquated gender norms that hold back people of all genders everywhere.

I am lucky that, in the moments of shock that followed such an unpleasant and unexpected interaction, I had a group of women to turn to for support, validation and shared anger. I hope that, moving forward, everyone is able to develop deep, real, powerful friendships with the women in their lives. Women are amazing. It’s a terrible shame (with potentially terrible consequences) that this man, and any number of other people, still don’t understand that.

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.

In honour of International Women’s Day, I’ve made a donation to Women for Women International to support marginalised women and girls. If you’d like to make a donation, you can do so here.

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