Friday, October 14, 2016

Not Okay

I stood in the elevator with a colleague. We exchanged pleasantries as the doors closed. Then he was behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist and pulling me against him. He was a big man, but I pushed him away. I said, disbelief squeezing my voice, “Why did you do that?”
“I had to.”
I told my supervisor. I was crying. I asked him if I had ever done anything to make someone believe it was okay to touch me without asking. He said, “You didn’t do anything. He was wrong.”
He reported it to senior management. Maybe someone spoke to the man because he never touched me again.
I was in my late twenties, a new mother. I knew it was wrong, but I thought he was a nice man, so I looked at myself instead of acknowledging he was terrible for thinking he could touch me just because he wanted to.
In college not just one, but two men, stalked me at different times. When I called the police to report the one who followed me in his car every morning as I walked to campus, repeatedly asking me to get in, they told me they could not do anything unless he touched me. There were no stalking laws then. I told the officer I would be sure to call back after they found my cold, dead body. Both men stopped stalking me after I pointed them out to Ronald and he threatened them. I still feel the anger of having to rely on him to feel safe instead of the men accepting my refusals.
Another time I was assigned to work on a class project with one of the football players.  He came to my dorm room. When he knocked on the door, I let him in my single room and left the door wide open. He turned around and closed it. I opened it again and told him my boyfriend was on his way over (Ronald WAS on his way. I asked him to come over because I knew it might not be safe), and he should leave the door open or I would report to the professor that I could not work on the project with him.
A director at the university library where Ronald and I were work-study students decided he did not like seeing us together (for new readers, Ronald is black. I am white. We have been together for forty-one years). He tried to fire Ronald and when that failed because the rest of us resigned, he tried to have me moved to a different department. Our supervisor told him off, especially after the director stated people had been complaining about us.  I could not believe he felt entitled to monitor, challenge and change my choices.
A professor was advising me on one of my student teaching lesson plans. He started calling me at my apartment and showing up at my work-study job. My roommates started screening calls and I changed my work schedule. One day he caught me on the stairs at the library and said, “Just have a drink with me. That’s all I ask.”
“I can’t.”
“Why?” he asked, stepping into my personal space.
“I just can’t.” I turned and ran down the stairs.
More than one white man, my father included, told me I could do better than dating Ronald. How many of them felt they were somehow missing out or that a black man had taken something that belonged to them?  Many acted as if they were concerned for my welfare, but I knew they were only concerned with their own wants and pleasures.
Other white men told me, because they saw me with a black man, that I was “easy.”
I reported a facilities problem at one job, but I didn’t know whom to contact, so I contacted the department head. The next day one of the facilities guys showed up at my office. He was enormous, about 6’5”, and he weighed well over 300 pounds. I am 5”2’ and on the tiny side. He leaned over me, his face just inches from mine, and yelled in his booming voice about how things would not get fixed because I had not gone through the right channels. I was terrified, but I looked him in the face, refusing to cower, and said, “It’s not that serious, Mike.”
After he left I went to the restroom and burst into tears.
One time a manager denied my request for personal time off to attend an event at my daughters’ school. As a manager myself, I told him it would not impact the operation of the department I managed, but he would not change his mind and suspected I did not think my job was a priority. I told him I would go to human resources and he said, “Go ahead,” like his word was the last one.
I reported him and told the personnel manager the company could not retain women managers in an environment that did not encourage work/life balance, where managers like the one I reported to judged a school event as not a valid reason to take time off. She said she would take care of it. Twenty minutes later my manager emailed me and said he had reconsidered, and I could take the personal time.
Another time he told me he could not picture me “fitting in” at the corporate office. I was not sure if he meant the way I looked, how I conducted business, or something else, but I knew it was a negative.
At another job the personnel manager shut his office door when I went in to ask him for more hours. He told me he would give me more hours, but I owed him. He leaned over the desk, loosening his tie. I raised my voice and asked him if he had ever heard anyone scream the word “rape.” He opened the door and, as I walked out, I said, “I don’t owe you anything.” He gave me more hours.
After he got transferred to another location, he stopped by my station to tell me I kept him honest. I told him, “I am your goddamned conscience.”
At a different job a manager, looking me up and down, said,  “You hair was longer in my dream last night.” Then he patted his lap and asked me to have a seat. Another day he reached out to touch the spot between my breasts and, when I slapped his hand away, he told me he was only going to touch my button to tell me he liked it.  I reported him. The executive said he would fire him – zero tolerance for sexual harassment – but I asked him not to. The man was on his third marriage and his new wife was pregnant. I felt sorry for her and asked the executive to tell him that another infraction would immediately be reported and then he would be terminated. I gave him a second chance.
A day later he asked if he could come to my desk and speak to me. He said I misunderstood him, that he liked to joke around, and he was sorry I took it the wrong way. Even at risk of losing his job, he was cavalier.  I told him I did not appreciate his brand of humor and that it had better not happen again.
Even at fifty-nine I still feel vulnerable when I am out and about alone. Sometimes I feel invisible, too, because there is a different way older women are treated and described, like the way Trump says Secretary Clinton has no stamina.
All the women who are coming forward and speaking publicly about their experiences with Trump as sexual predator brought these stories, and many more than I have space to tell, back to consciousness. I am angry. Angry for all the times men made me feel like a thing instead of a person and for all the times they felt entitled to make sexual comments, invade my personal space, or make judgments about my looks, sexuality, abilities, intelligence, and choices.
We not only taught our daughters about race and racism in America, we taught them about how society might treat them as girls and women. As they became  young teens and then left home at age seventeen to go to the dance conservatory, I told them the following:
1)                   Don’t play games with boys and men. Be clear about what is comfortable and what isn’t. Be clear if you don’t feel mutual attraction.
2)                   Don’t put drinks down at a party and leave them unattended. Don’t accept a drink from anyone, even friends.
3)                   Protect yourself from getting into a situation in which you don’t have control over the outcome.
4)                   Speak up no matter how uncomfortable it may make you feel.
5)                   You can tell me anything, and, although I may be upset or even angry, I will still support and love you.
6)                   Stay safe. Take a cab. Tell someone else where you are and whom you are with. Have someone go with you.
I only hope parents are teaching their sons how to treat girls and women as equals and with respect, not as sex objects or by shaming them about their bodies or sexuality. But I know, with the high rate of rape on college campuses, we have a long way to go.
Obviously no one taught Trump how to treat women. He does what he wants. He feels entitled. He said so. When Trump says the women who spoke out are liars and “you know me,” he is gaslighting his supporters.

But the women who are coming forward? They are courageous. They know their truth, and they are ready to speak it. Trump can’t gaslight them anymore, making them feel like they were mistaken or it was something they did or some personal failure or that they are too ugly or old to have held his attention -- "look at her." Nor can he gaslight the majority of the electorate who knows exactly who he is – a sexual predator. 
Don’t be silent.


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