The Indestructible Wall: When Self-protection is Painful
Epiphanies come at the strangest moments for me. Today, as I walked down the streets of Waterville, Maine on one of the first hot sunny days of the year (yes it’s almost July), I caught myself doing something I always do in public. A subtle trick learned by necessity of a woman who understands the nuance of human interaction. You see, I wore a dress today in celebration of the warmth, and I was aware during my walk of the gazes of men both near and distant. But, as I have always managed to do while walking down busy streets, even when I lived in New Orleans, New York City, and Orlando, I stopped street harassment dead in its tracks.
How did I do this? I put up a wall.
I don’t claim to have some magic answer for women everywhere, although I wish I did. That is not the point of this article. But I have found that, for some reason, I am very successful at thwarting the intentions of male gawkers by some subtle adjustments to my posture and face. I walk swiftly (though not hurriedly) and with purpose. I make eye contact with passers-by and smile warmly. I hold my head high and project a safe bubble around my body that says to people, whether they know why or not, that I own the space I am taking up and that invasions of my space are not welcome. Would this work in Egypt? Perhaps not. But I have to say, I am charmed enough to have seen it work wonders in some situations that might have been dangerous otherwise.
Here’s the problem: I can’t knock the wall down!
And yes, I want to. Not on the streets or in situations where I am uncomfortable, but sometimes, when I am surrounded by people I trust, I want to knock it down with a bulldozer and I just can’t seem to do it. The faÃ§ade I have created is seemingly indestructible.
If any of you have been following me, you have read that I came out to myself and to the world as queer just this year, after 31 years of acting the part of a well-behaved woman: mother, professional, nurturer. I have been seduced by the refreshing truths of sex positive writers, and I have embraced alternative visions of love, romance, and sexuality by writing lots and lots of sexy stories. Having always been an ally as best I knew how, I have felt at home in a crowd of new friends who identify as everything from queer to transgender to polyamorous, and I whole-heartedly support and endorse the joy of living as one’s true self. My last article was all about Pride, rejoicing at my plans to participate in it, and outlining in my distant scholarly way the reasons that sexuality is so beautiful.
I did go to Pride. I drove to Boston and danced the night away at one of the coolest parties I have ever attended. Surrounded by Goddesses of all shapes, sizes, colors, and preferences, I should have allowed myself to bask in celebration, in freedom from imposed expectations regarding my gender and sexuality, in¦ well¦ PRIDE about who I am. But I couldn’t. I didn’t. The wall that protects me suddenly trapped me. My careful distance kept others at bay, just as it always has, and instead of feeling safe, independent, and powerful, I felt profoundly alone.
I cried the whole way back from Boston. That’s a good three hour drive, and I’ll tell you driving through tears is really not safe.
Why share this pain you? Because I believe PAIN is much too often left out of the conversation, especially here in the blogosphere where we rant, condemn, argue, and politicize. I was very moved today to read “Love in a Time of Calling Out, wherein a transgender woman describes the pain she feels when her own family misgenders her. We can debate about privilege and marginalization exhaustively, but few will really reach others to transform their thinking, to change their minds, if we leave out what is most important and most real about our push for progress: the very human PAIN we feel when we are cast into roles that do not reflect our true selves.
As a young girl, I became aware of the dangers of female-hood. Ads like this remind me of my gradually developing consciousness of the liabilities of a female body as I wanted nothing more than to be seen for my mind, my heart, and my voice. Tricks of posture and body language were a survival skill, the most effective mechanism I could discover for encouraging people to take me seriously as a whole person, not as a body, an object. By building the wall, I was protecting myself from pain, the very real and tragic pain of sexual violence against women.
And now it is the wall that is causing me pain. It is hindering my personal relationships, holding back my discovery of my true desires, preventing me from experiencing the beauty of sexuality I can so eloquently outline in a blog post or describe in an erotic story.
Calling people out for causing us pain is important work. Very recently, I have had to call out some colleagues close to me for insensitivity to the pain of marginalization. It was scary to speak the truth, but it would have frightened me much more to have left the invisibility of their privilege unchecked only to see this same pain evoked again from the deep wells within people where it resides.
And I have been called out too. More than once, recently, and rightly so. I have jumped into waters that I am not accustomed to navigating, and even though it was never my intention, my blind spots have hurt people I care about. I have used the wrong pronoun with a close friend who trusted me for support; I have spoken in public without fully considering the range of possible experiences of my audience; I have regressed and resorted to hetero-normative assumptions about sex and in doing so magnified anxiety when I was trying to pacify it. Being called out was painful, mostly because I realized in that moment that I had inflicted pain when what I wanted to do was give love. But make no mistake. The pain of being called out is a good pain, a growing pain, and one I would never complain about. I am blessed that, when given the opportunity to apologize, my friends have accepted my sincere words of regret, and I have learned to be more mindful of other people’s pain.
The pain of womanhood is difficult to convey, so often shrouded in righteous anger and intellectual examination. Perhaps to express it puts me in danger of being perceived as weak or whiney, reinforcing the stereotypes of femininity. And yet it is so real. Being forced to negotiate preconceptions about my sexuality alienated me from a sacred part of myself for a very long time. It turned me into a person who cannot be reached, who fears intimacy because it too closely mimics invasion. It has forced me to choose between being valued for my mind, heart, and voice, and being capable of connecting through my sexuality. The world at large and its dehumanization of me for the body in which I was born has held me back relationally because I would not let it hold me back professionally. And it hurts.
I am pleased to say that, despite my anxiety during Pride, I met somebody. I met a woman who radiates beauty from inside her, who lights up a room, and who is patient and understanding of me. While I long for a bull-dozer, I think she is much too gentle for that. Instead I think she will be creative, digging a tunnel to get under the wall, leaping fearlessly to get over the wall, or maybe just chipping away at the wall until I dismantle it myself. She, like me, is honest about her pain. And she, like me, knows that despite the messages this world gives us, our sexuality should not come at the expense of being appreciated for our minds, hearts, and voices. We women should be celebrated and respected for it all.