by Laura S. Logan
In the recent Atlantic article, “The Quiet Crisis Among Queer Women”, author Shannon Keating tells readers that despite clear personal benefits, queer women are not fairing well in the larger social world. Keating presents a cornucopia of statistical evidence – most from a portion of the 2014 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being survey – that indicates that queer women are not experiencing the same quality of life as gay men or straight men and women. There is a lot of information in this article but of particular interest to me – as an activist and scholar who focuses on violence against marginalized people and social movements – was the discussion about “community involvement, safety and security.”
According to the author, “where queer men assess their communities with close to as much contentedness as straight men, queer women feel less connected to where they live than their straight female counterparts. Just 31 percent of queer women feel they are thriving in terms of community involvement, safety, and security, a full 9 percent less than straight women.” Readers are then offered a partial explanation for less community involvement, safety and security: Street harassment.
The Atlantic article presents an opportunity to examine street harassment more closely, and with greater attention to overlapping inequalities. In my research, I find queer women’s experiences of street harassment are shaped by their racial identity and by the harasser’s assumptions about their gender and sexual orientation. When the targets of street harassment occupy more than one marginalized identity, such as being queer and being a woman of color, they cannot know if their harasser will focus on their race, gender, and/or sexual orientation. For people on the margins, because they are targeted in so many different ways and their harassers are motivated by so many different prejudices (racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, etc.), street harassment lives around every corner.
Thus many victims of street harassment – particularly queer women of color – expect to be harassed. And beyond the expectations of street harassment are fears of further violence: What might be next? Will the harasser do more than verbally violate me? Is rape, assault or even murder a possibility? And for queer women of color, Will I be arrested if I defend myself? The murder of Sakia Gunn, the assault and criminalization of the New Jersey 7, and incidents such as the one in San Francisco where a rape victim was identified as lesbian when the perpetrators noticed a rainbow sticker on her car, suggest these fears are not unfounded.
It is important to look below the surface of street harassment to see why it might influence queer women’s community involvement and sense of safety and security. Some incidents of homophobic violence against members of queer communities begin with street harassment (here) but research suggests that gay men who are victims of hate crime are often targeted when they are in gay spaces, such as gay-borhoods and near gay bars. Those who attack gay men often premeditate the attack and operate in groups to outnumber a lone gay man or a gay male couple.
However, frequently when lesbians are victims of anti-gay harassment and violence, they are attacked in everyday spaces such as parking lots and college campuses (here and here). Perpetrators who target lesbians are most often men and alone; however, the lesbian is often not alone but is with another woman or more than one other woman. Typically the attacker is a man but he has not gone to a gay area to find his lesbian victim/s and he hasn’t premeditated his verbal, physical or sexual assault. Rather, the harasser has chosen to act in that moment, likely as he interprets visual cues that for him identify the women as queer. In other words, violence in public space against queer women surfaces in the moment – as does street harassment.
Feminists, queer scholars, and activists have long argued that street harassment and violence against gay men and queer and straight women is about policing gender and sexuality, and that the “police” are almost always heterosexual men. But the pattern here, the difference in the characteristics associated with attacks on gay men versus attacks on lesbians, suggests that harassment and violence against queer women (and indeed all women and queer individuals) is linked to rape culture where the male gaze conveys and embodies domination, entitlement and ownership.
Through street harassment lesbians are being disciplined for (among other things) having the temerity to place themselves out of the harasser’s figurative sexual reach, a violation of heterosexual gender norms. White male supremacy and rape culture intersect and dictate that queer women of color have even less permission than queer white women to occupy public (i.e. male) space and that men are even more entitled to discipline them for attempting to place their bodies outside the reach of heterosexual men. In fact, as Dorothy Roberts and others have aptly illustrated, disciplining the bodies of women of color has a long unbroken history in the U.S.
The links between privilege, oppression, street harassment and violence complicate the risks of being targeted. Moreover, the specter of violence and street harassment is pervasive. It is no wonder that queer women are not experiencing “community involvement, safety and security” in equal measure to straight women or gay men, and that queer women of color are at most risk of not feeling safe and secure. I would argue that queer women’s perceptions are based on what they are experiencing in public spaces – harassment, fear of harassment, and fear of violence – leading to alienation from their communities and consequently to a lower quality of life.
Street harassment is a complicated issue. It is imperative that we be mindful of the ways that overlapping inequalities shape street harassment and potential solutions. For instance, we can easily predict that most laws to curb street harassment will disproportionately criminalize men of color – and we should steadfastly resist solutions tied to institutional racism. As the social movement against street harassment grows, we need to build coalitions that are led by women of color and others who are most marginalized. We need to find solutions that don’t further perpetuate existing structural inequalities; solutions that benefit all groups by reimagining public space as everyone’s space.
Laura Logan is assistant professor of sociology at Hastings College.