It was a night in the Spring of 2015. I was working bar at a sweet sixteen party, hosted at a remote, oddly lavish dog sanctuary an hour from Toronto. The faux-rustic room was filled with rich exurbanites, their overdressed children, and wait staff. The event manager was a bookish looking man in his fifties, who had memorized my name before I arrived.
“Michael?” He located me in a crowd of servers without hesitation. “You’ll be on bar.”
I nodded, flattered by his familiarity. We’d never met.
An hour later I was shaking cocktails when he approached my bar and adjusted my pile of napkins.
“Do you know what my weakness is, bro?” He slurred, his eyes fixed on his fingertips. “What really gets me?”
“Your weakness?” I clarified, studying him for context. (I hate being called bro.) “Ah, no… What?”
He took a moment to reorganize my cup of straws. Then he leaned in closer and looked up at me.
“Young pussy.” He spoke slowly, indulging the vowels; a smile slithered across his face.
I scanned the sea of gawky teen girls in party dresses. I pictured my sister, who fended off creeps throughout her adolescent life. I pictured Caitlin, an old friend who taught me to be a feminist when I was a twinky teenager. I pictured the owner of my staffing agency, who likes things to go smoothly with her clients.
I chuckled awkwardly. He ordered a drink.
I scanned my brain for something to say that would convey disagreement without inciting conflict but I stalled. Where was the levity? It’s not that I wanted to police his desire. But I also didn’t want to be made privy to it. My lips teetered on “I’m gay,” but that seemed like a cop-out.
I handed him his drink.
He moved away from my bar and delivered the cocktail to a young woman who might have been nineteen but was probably closer to seventeen. He touched her shoulder. He seemed gentle, harmless, fatherly. I watched on, feeling agitated, pathetic, complicit—a familiar cocktail of feelings. I went back to making drinks, checking on him in the crowd every few minutes.
I should have said something, I thought to myself. I should have challenged him. Even if it was messy. Even if I got sent home.
More often than I’ve liked in my adult life, I’ve been on the receiving end of some basic bro’s sexist anecdote or predatory musing. And when it’s happened, I’ve gotten stuck in wondering why I can’t just man-up to a bit of locker-room talk. It’s not that I’m on some altruistic mission to stand up for women (though that wouldn’t be the worst thing). It’s that I identify with the women being objectified, belittled, and preyed upon.
Let me offer some background: I grew up chubby and femme, though I’m thin and bearded now. As a kid, my idols were all older women—they still are. I spent half my childhood playing in swamps and the other half wearing my mother’s clothing. More athletic boys made fun of me for having boobies, which I didn’t really mind. Adult men suggested I play more sports and lose weight around the middle. For me, growing up in a body that felt feminized (or, at least, attracted the kind of scrutiny I noticed women’s bodies receive) meant I learned to relate to women in a way that I never fully learned to relate to men.
Now, as an adult, in a body that passes as normatively masculine—even bro-ish on a bearded day—the expectation of my straightness can be seductive to me. My desire to be accepted by men can overshadow my desire to be understood in a complex light. So, when a certain kind of man invites me in, leans on my bar, lets me in on a little secret, I feel the pressure to fulfill his expectations of me. I find myself placating him. Pretending to be entertained by things I don’t find funny.
There’s a code of bromanship that gets ingrained early on (cut to: all around the world, feminist scholars yawn). As a dude, you don’t leave other men out on limbs, even if they’ve crawled there themselves. Paul Ryan’s love affair with Donald Trump is a nauseating example of this. But mainstage politics aside, what does this alliance mean for the people who are belittled, harassed and abused, and who need support in holding men in positions of authority accountable?
when men assume I'm straight and try to bond with me over objectifying women pic.twitter.com/pyA5Ppr81i
— Nick (@Nick_Avallone) March 17, 2017
Earlier this fall, I was in an elevator at a Toronto airport. Just as the doors were closing, two young boys, maybe nine and eleven, hurried in, followed a few beats later by a businessman, staring at his phone. The doors closed and I did what everyone does on an elevator. I started to make up stories.
In scenario A, the boys were traveling on their own to visit Uncle Morris in Thunder Bay. In scenario B, their mum is a pilot and it’s Bring-Your-Kids-To-Work Day. In scenario C, the boys were making an international break for it, Home Alone 2 style. It wasn’t until the doors opened and the businessman exited, followed anxiously by the boys staring at his coattails, that I realized they were his kids.
“Tim, where’s your phone charger?” the man grumbled, not looking up from his own device.
“Um, I forgot it?” Tim mumbled, nervously.
The man glared at Tim, then turned to his other son.
“Brian, did you bring yours?”
Brian shook his head.
The man fumed. This began a tirade that continued as I followed the three up the escalator, through security, and into the boarding lounge. The father outlined various shortcomings the boys had presented: forgetting their phone chargers, forgetting their computer chargers, and not getting up fast enough for passport check when their names were called.
“This is why you can’t travel!” he chastised them, while scanning his Blackberry.
I wasn’t so perturbed by the criticisms the man was spouting as I was by his relentlessness. There was no warmth, no forgiveness. He treated his kids like incompetent interns.
I get that kids can be difficult. And I have no idea what these boys were doing an hour earlier. Maybe they lit curtains on fire. Maybe they put Fluffles the cat in a microwave. I don’t know! But they seemed bewildered. Unsure of what to expect next from their father. His lecturing. His pacing ahead of them. His cold, distant tone. They watched him nervously and then dove into their iPads the first chance they got.
I wanted to pull the man aside and tell him that the world doesn’t need more emotionally unavailable, insecure, tech-obsessed, corporate drones. “Cut your kids a fucking break!” I would have said. “Show them that you actually like them. Reveal what’s really upsetting you and teach these boys to express themselves; teach them empathy!”
Of course, I didn’t say any of that. I just watched the kids go inward and stare at their screens in a swirl of their father’s exhaust. They were playing some generic game of conquest. I wondered who they would become when they grew-up. I thought of my own childhood.
When I was ten, my dad took me on a camping trip to Algonquin Park with two of his good buddies and their sons. Let’s call one of his buddies Ron. On the way out of the park, I was put in the canoe with Ron and his son. Several hours into canoeing and portaging, my paddling got a little limp-wristed.
“Stop your lilydipping,” Ron warned me.
Lilydipping? The word sounded inherently feminine. I watched my oar and the way it dipped into the water. Was it too elegant, too gentle? I dug the paddle in harder and pulled the water back behind the canoe with as much force as my chubby arm could muster. The paddle skipped above the lake’s surface, splashing Ron’s son in the face. The kid laughed and splashed me back.
“Stop splashing!” Ron barked, wiping sweat off of his forehead.
I zipped my lips and focused on my oar. Dip down, pull back, look for the whirlpool. Dip down, pull back… The wind was getting strong and pushing back against the canoe. My arm was getting tired. I looked out at the blustery lake. At the windswept pines over the rocky bluffs. At the cool water fragmenting the fading sun.
“God damn it, Michael! If you don’t start paddling harder, I’m gonna shove my fucking paddle up your ass!” Ron boomed from the stern of the canoe.
I felt myself go beet red. Ron’s son either started cackling or sobbing, I can’t remember which. Either way, I paddled harder and faster than I thought possible. I paddled until my arms were throbbing and my breathing was shallow and my finger-tips were blistering.
Despite being a decently strong canoeist these days, I’m still afraid of being scorned for lilydipping. I’m scared of men who fly off the handle or look at me in a cold, distant, contemptuous way—like there’s something in me that threatens them. So, when a certain kind of man learns my name and leans on my bar, I want to like him. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I want to feel camaraderie. But the allure of his acceptance can be hollow; if he looks at me and sees a bro, it means he hasn’t really seen me at all.
So I write this blog as a conversation starter for anyone who wants to take it up. It’s for straight men, queer men, trans men—who are uncomfortable calling out other guys for myriad reasons. It’s for bearded femmes like me who get mistaken for basic bros and find themselves entangled in sexist conversations they abhor. It’s for prettyboy jocks who adopt themselves into cis male culture, then find themselves silently uncomfortable when women and femmes are put down around them. It’s for women (of all genders), who deserve to have some of the burden of the conversation about sexism, harassment and abuse taken off their shoulders.
Scores of women have come forward to confront men in positions of power, who have harassed, belittled, and abused them. This is a potent moment to challenge status quo masculinity! And not just within straight circles. I recently watched three cis men gather around a Grindr account to scoff at a trans woman who had tapped one of them.
As men we might seek to own our complicity, as well as our vulnerability, within systems of gender-based oppression. That’s what I’m trying to do here. I don’t have a resolution other than to try, where I can, to honour the complexity of my point-of-view and to use it to interrupt interactions that normalize misogyny.
With that in mind, I would just like to put this out there: if you have something to say about a woman that you wouldn’t say to a woman, maybe don’t say it all. And if you find yourself in sticky, sexist conversation, maybe try asking questions. A woman I met at a party recently suggested asking questions as a way of disrupting problematic dialogue without starting a fight. Ask questions until everyone feels awkward. Ask questions until the problematic sentiment becomes inescapable. Its owner will either have to vouch for it awkwardly, or let it wither and die.