About a year after I graduated from college, I lived in Paris for a few months, working as an unpaid intern for a small film festival and ignoring all my student loans. That’s where I met a girl I’ll call E.
We indulged in every tired old cliche it's possible to indulge in when when you’re young and in love and living in Paris. She was not my usual type — though it wasn’t like I’d been out as gay long enough to really have a type — because she wasn’t masculinely androgynous. She was American, like me, and small and soft and blonde and very, very feminine. I was someone who wore the occasional swipe of lipstick; she put on a full face of makeup every single day after curling her long, beautiful hair. I used to love watching her get ready to go out. Her rituals.
One night I was meeting her for dinner in the Marais. When I got off the metro, I found her on a street corner, and we kissed. Nothing crazy, but perhaps a beat or two longer than your typical greeting sort of kiss.
We were, suddenly, mobbed by a group of men. Six or seven of them surrounded us, shout-whispering what I assume were terrible things — I’ve never felt better about not speaking French than when I was getting harassed on the street — and one stuck his hand up my dress, managing to slip the tip of his finger into my underwear. I shoved him away before he could go any further, disgusted and afraid, but otherwise did not make a scene. Even if I knew which words to use in my defense, I’m not sure I would have used them. E and I escaped the fray and walked to dinner, not touching. At the time we were shaken, but we laughed it off — “Men are disgusting!” — and didn’t let the incident ruin our date. But we were different, after that, when we were in public together. We had to be more careful.
When Cara Delevingne released a statement on Wednesday alleging that Harvey Weinstein had trapped her in a room where he tried to get her to kiss another woman in front of him, I felt a sick jolt of recognition. Delevingne joined a growing list of women who have accused Weinstein of sexual harassment or assault, and each allegation is as disturbing as the next. But I was particularly upset after reading Delevingne’s account. When I brought up what she’d written with some of my queer friends, I found that they felt the same: sick, horrified. Because they knew.
Too many queer women can relate to Delevingne’s story. She says that when she first started acting, Weinstein called her, asking if she “had slept with any of the women I was seen out with in the media.” She didn’t answer him, but before she got off the phone, he allegedly told her that if she was gay, or decided to date women in the public eye, “that I’d never get the role of a straight woman or make it as an actress in Hollywood.”
A year or two later, she says she met with Weinstein in a hotel lobby with a director, and after the director left, Weinstein “began to brag about all the actresses he had slept with and how he had made their careers.” He then invited her to his room, which she tried to get out of — “I felt very powerless and scared but didn’t want to act that way, hoping that I was wrong about the situation” — but her car wasn’t outside yet. When she got to Weinstein’s room, there was another woman there, which at first made her feel relieved and safe. But then Weinstein allegedly asked them to kiss, and the other woman made a motion to oblige him. Delevingne got up and started to sing, attempting to make the situation “more professional… like an audition.” Weinstein, she says, tried to kiss her on the lips before she was able to get out of the room.
Delevingne ended up getting the part for the film they were meeting about. She “always thought that he gave it to me because of what happened. Since then I felt awful that I did the movie. I felt like I didn’t deserve the part … I felt guilty as if I did something wrong.”
Sexual harassers traffic in the guilt of those they harass. Guilt, and doubt, and fear, and shame.
I was supposed to be a piece of fawning, decorative machinery; as a lesbian, I didn’t fit into the machine.
That spring when I lived in Paris, I had decided to briefly forgo financial responsibility and spend some time pursuing (get this!) my dreams. What I wanted, more than anything, was a career in the film industry, and I thought this unpaid internship at a small, mostly unheard-of film festival was the way to make it happen. I was young and idealistic and had the world spread out at my feet.
It was one of the happiest times of my life. I was seeing E, and I was working with people from all around the world who loved film the way I did. For the first time, I felt like I was able to be my whole self. Everyone who knew me back in the States had thought of me as a straight person, and they were still getting used to the gay person I’d become. In Paris, where I knew no one and no one knew me, I got to start fresh.
But my boss at the festival didn’t quite seem to believe that I was, in fact, a lesbian. He was the kind of fiftysomething man who made a bunch of inappropriate sexual jokes in the office because he was cool and fun and just one of the guys. Early on, he loved to shoot some my way — suggesting men for me to sleep with, or marry — and I’d remind him: I’m gay, remember?
He’d make a small, confused sound, Huh, and give me a little half-smile, half-sneer. He always seemed disbelieving, and maybe a little bit angry. I was a young woman whose job was to do everything he asked of me, to laugh at all his jokes, to listen with polite interest when he talked for endless afternoons about his pitch for the racist white savior feature film he’d always wanted to make. I was supposed to be a piece of fawning, decorative machinery; as a lesbian, I didn’t fit into the machine.
Unless, of course, mine was the kind of lesbianism that existed only for male consumption. One evening, the festival team had a photo shoot. We drank a lot, and a few of us stayed late, wrapping feather boas around our necks and trying on other props for the camera. There are professional-quality photos of me from that night, my cheeks flushed, my cracked lips red from the wine. I look happy.
My boss assigned me to come with him to get more wine when we’d run dry. It was still pretty early in my internship, but I already knew his reputation. Still, I felt proud to have been selected for this special mission as we stole through the Parisian night. When he’d lean in close to whisper to me — I don’t remember what about; his stupid film plans, probably — it felt like I was being let in on a secret.
A beautiful woman in a trench coat passed us as we rounded a corner. “What do you think of her?” he asked. He was so quiet I barely heard him. By that point, we’d stopped walking, and he was leaning into me. I stepped away, said that we should get the wine and get back to the others.
Every year, I had learned, my boss took his favorite interns with him to the Cannes Film Festival, and I desperately wanted to go. And so there were many times after that night, during my internship, when I should have spoken up, and I didn’t. I didn’t say anything when my boss made gay jokes at the expense of one of my good friends, who was straight but not traditionally masculine. My boss never seemed to remember that I was the actual gay person in the room, but soon enough it didn’t matter, because I stopped mentioning it. When he asked me things like what I was going to wear to the festival premiere, and suggested that I borrow something from a much smaller coworker — meaning her clothes would look obscene on me — I gave him shit for it, but in a way like we were in on a joke together. An Oh, quit it, you cad! kind of way. We became co-conspirators again, like we were that night on the street, but now we were conspiring to feed a great, beastly lie.
I effectively closeted myself. I became the chill, docile, hardworking woman he wanted, one who would roll her eyes and laugh at his sexual advances. When he repeatedly invited me and a friend to visit his country house in the south of France on the weekends, we carefully planned the politest ways to decline. When he bought me an occasional two-euro espresso, even though he wasn’t paying me a single cent for all my labor otherwise, I was grateful, and I said so. He did pick me to go to Cannes. And I felt guilty about it, because I was chosen for all the wrong reasons.
In retrospect, that boss was following the same playbook that Delevingne alleges Weinstein was, though in a less extreme, more subtle way: doubting my queerness, signaling that I should stop talking about it already; then, in private, twisting it into something for him to consume. Lesbians have gotten this same message over and over and over again: It’s bad and wrong and gross for you to be gay, unless you’re putting on a show for the pleasure of men.
After Cannes, where I dealt with a bunch of other instances of casual but infuriating sexism, my boss and I got into a blowout fight, and I burned all my bridges. I just couldn’t keep up the facade anymore. A little like Tippi Hedren, who tweeted on Wednesday that all of the sexual harassment she dealt with in her modeling and film career eventually pushed her to leave the industry altogether, I walked away from the film world without looking back.
Soon after I’d come out, before going to Paris, I ended up at a party with one of my oldest, dearest friends. Like my film festival boss, he didn’t seem to believe me when I told him I was gay. Either that, or he didn’t really care. I’d been a serial dater, always with one boyfriend or another, and for the first time in my life, the tenuous safety that’s supposed to come along with being some guy’s girlfriend no longer applied to me. I’d just started casually dating the person who would become my first real girlfriend. But when I told my friend this — we were alone, in a back room of the party — he brushed it aside. At best, my being gay was something to ignore; at worst, it was something he figured he could violently correct. He forced me to have sex with him, an incident I wrote about before I was emotionally prepared to call it rape, and I learned that even the men I thought I’d loved could not protect me.
Lesbians have gotten this same message over and over and over again: It’s bad and wrong and gross for you to be gay, unless you’re putting on a show for the pleasure of men.
Though all of these incidents have varying levels of severity, they all seem to boil down into the same toxic stew: harassment or assault or rape, whether doled out by someone you loved and thought you could trust or someone who controls your livelihood. A friend recently told me about working for a man in the entertainment industry a few years ago who was shocked to learn she had a girlfriend. “Don’t worry,” he assured her. “You’re still fuckable.” When my friend brought her girlfriend to the company holiday party, and gave her a quick kiss, her boss was immediately at their side, asking for them to “do it again.”
So many of us have stories like these. A coworker told me that she recently had her first kiss with the girl she’s currently dating, out on the street as they were walking back to her car. Two different guys started yelling at them — Ohhhh yeah and That's hot. She told them to please stop, to go away, and one of the guys flicked her off and called her a bitch.
Any woman who’s been sexually harassed on the street will recognize this pattern: men sexualizing your body, demanding your time and attention, then turning hostile when you just try to get the fuck away from them. Back when I dated men, I used to be relieved when I had a boyfriend at my side on the street, particularly in the summer, when catcalling reaches its ugly peak. Having been worn down by one violation after the other, it was a beautiful sort of freedom to take a stroll in my body without having to be hyperaware of all the strangers who just couldn’t wait to shout things at me, to make me feel powerless and small. Even if it was the incredibly limited, fucked-up kind of freedom that only a male protector could buy me.
When you’re a woman publicly dating a woman, you don’t have that kind of protection — you’re doubly at risk of being harassed. Once, while I was standing with my current partner on a mostly empty subway platform, a man asked us if we were dating, and when we denied it (to get rid of him), he literally chased us around the platform; thankfully, a train pulled up and we were able to get on it, but he leered at us through the window until the subway pulled out of the station. Of all my time in New York, I’ve perhaps never felt so afraid.
I’ve been in bars, dancing with women, where men have forced themselves between us, trying to get in on the action, and their relentlessness meant it was easier to just leave the bar, abandon the party, quit touching each other. Coming out as a queer person is never a one-time thing; it’s an endlessly complicated negotiation, a spectrum, rather than a simple binary of “out” versus “in.” So, when we need to, we self-censor, we avoid, we deny, deny, deny. We let go and give up the fight.
Jia Tolentino recently wrote in the New Yorker about the way men like Harvey Weinstein implicate their victims in their acts: “If you’re sweet and friendly, you’ll think that it’s your fault for accommodating the situation. If you’re tough, well, you might as well decide that it’s no big deal. If you’re a gentle person, then he knew you were weak.” They can make you doubt, and blame, the best things about yourself. When queer people are harassed, we might chastise ourselves for being so overtly gay in places that might not be hospitable to gay people — basically, any public place — when we should have known better than to hold hands, or to kiss. And we might doubt whether it’s worth it to be open about this part of ourselves in the first place.
Whether it’s by a boss, or a friend, or some random asshole on the street, lesbians are constantly surveilled, fetishized, and punished for their sexuality. In 2015, a lesbian couple was arrested while on vacation in Hawaii for kissing in a grocery store. That same year, a black lesbian couple was coming home from a concert in Brooklyn when one of them says she was called a “dyke” by a police officer, after which he attacked her; as soon as other police officers showed up, the women thought they were being rescued, but instead they were arrested. This past May, a man yelled anti-gay epithets at a lesbian couple on a Brooklyn-bound Q train, and after they pleaded with him to calm down, he attacked them, beating one of the women unconscious.
Any victim of sexual assault or harassment will face overwhelming obstacles when it comes to speaking up about what happened to them — especially if it involves someone with a great amount of power, like Harvey Weinstein. But if the victim is queer, they also risk potentially outing themselves by coming forward. Cara Delevingne, still early in her career, was told that she’d ruin her chances of success if she was open about her dating life. Of the many reasons she might not have felt safe telling her story until now, I could imagine that might be one of them.
Why would it matter if someone is gay, and has not even the remotest interest in a man’s advances, if their interests are irrelevant?
I'm not a celebrity, so I have no idea what it’s like to navigate the performance of your own queerness, or the discovery of your own queerness, on the world’s stage, but it’s something that celebrities have wrestled with for decades. Even the most famous and successful LGBT people are forced to deal with the sort of misogyny and homophobia that can turn into harassment at the hands of powerful men.
The day after Delevingne released her statement, Isa Hackett, a producer for Man in the High Castle, went public about a harassment claim against Amazon’s programming chief, Roy Price. Hackett alleges Price repeatedly propositioned her in a cab, saying things like “You will love my dick” and loudly mentioning anal sex. Hackett told him she is a lesbian with a wife and children, and she was not interested, but he persisted nonetheless.
What Delevingne and Hackett’s stories highlight is how harassment like this has much less to do with sex than it does with power. Why would it matter if someone is gay, and has not even the remotest interest in a man’s advances, if their interests are irrelevant? Men like Weinstein, like my boss, like any man who’s ever asked two lesbians to have a threesome with him, like any man who’s convinced he can “turn” a gay woman straight because all she needs is a good dicking — all they’re really interested in is power. If you present as a more masculine lesbian, then you’re ugly, you’re a man, you’re a dyke, you’re a threat. If you present as a more feminine lesbian, you’re someone to proposition, to fetishize, to sexually harass or abuse. None of these things have much to do with sex, but they have everything to do with attempting to dominate and control women who step out of line, who refused to be ruled by heteronormativity and the world of overbearing men.
Of course, those without the benefits of wealth or celebrity are far worse off. I’m lucky — I am white and cisgender, and I have the privilege to live in a progressive city where, most of the time, I feel comfortable being open about who I am. Trans and gender-nonconforming people, particularly those who are transfeminine or of color, are subjected to horrifically high rates of harassment and assault. This year, at least 23 trans people have been violently killed, most of them trans women of color. We do not yet live in a world that’s remotely safe for queer people on the margins. And until all of us are safe, none of us will be. ●