I’m bisexual and I live in fear of one day falling in love with a straight, white man. I don’t talk about my interest in men very often and sometimes I notice friends beginning to refer to me as a lesbian. There are a couple of reasons I don’t talk about men though, 1) talking about men is boring and 2) I had cancer a couple of years ago (it’s not a big deal, let’s not go into it) and I feel the same way about being attracted to men as I do about my cancer. If it happens again I will be saddened and angry, but ultimately unsurprised and accepting.
I don’t like men. As a group. Individually they’re fine, I guess. Often, they’re terrific. I have straight, white, male friends and sometimes they’ll ask me, what are they supposed to do? How can they overcome their awfulness, I guess. I don’t know what to tell them. The question is exhausting and whenever I have to stop and think about them as a population group I just get rage sweats. I want an answer for them. I want to be constructive. I don’t want my beliefs to put me fundamentally at odds with people I love. But it’s difficult. There’s a lot to be mad at.
There is an arrogance to the straight, white man that defies logic. A freedom to spout utter shit, constantly. It’s never true and it’s always stupid but somehow they manage to attack your deepest insecurities. Once, before I really knew I was gay, I was walking down the street with a friend who I had a crush on. A man stumbled out of a pub with his girlfriend, leaned down to my friend and I and breathed “I fucking hate lesbians” while his girlfriend giggled behind him, embarrassed by his drunken antics as if all he’d said was that he was King of the World. “I’m sorry,” I said to my friend, “I’m sorry he yelled at us, that’s my bad, you don’t look gay.” Sometimes these moments are scary and sometimes they’re just so ridiculous they’re funny. When I was at Schoolies, I was walking to the beach one night with my friends and a group of boys on one of the hotel balconies yelled out the classic, “tits out for the boys.” When we didn’t respond they followed it up with, “you chicks ought to be stoked, you’re fat as fuck!” Then, a couple of years ago when my hair was shorter and I was dressing in my best male friend’s old clothes, I was walking to work and some guys in a ute yelled out “hey faggot.” The joke was on them: as a sartorially insecure queer woman dressing like a faggot is about the best compliment I can hope to receive.
Street harassment is an experience that everyone can claim. It’s so commonplace that it’s boring. Men are always coming into our space. Always yelling about how women whinge too much. Always flapping their gums about how they talk too much. Men love to overstep boundaries. Their arrogance is such that they feel comfortable in any space, like a toxic gas they expand to fill their container. A space noticeably changes in the absence of the straight white man. It becomes calmer, friendlier, and more peaceful.
I’ve been taking a French course for the past year. It’s been going pretty well. The first semester’s class was full of women. We had a French instructor and a couple of men but none of them white. It was brilliant. Everyone contributed. Everyone answered questions, asked questions. We chatted about each other’s lives and our reasons for learning the language. The second semester though was a different class. There were many of the same students but now there were two older, white cis-het men. The dynamic changed dramatically. One of the men was quite friendly, polite but spoke constantly of his travels with his wife Brenda and everything Brenda thought about different places. It was cute but it also went on and on and on and no one else got to speak. The second man, Stephen was an anaesthetist who argued with our French teacher (a native French woman) about what words they used in France. When our teacher asked us to complete exercises in our head he would speak them out loud. When she asked us to practice our pronunciation by repeating phrases as a group he would race to say them the fastest. Whenever people talked about their upcoming travels he would condescendingly explain to them why each city was a great choice. He didn’t share stories he lectured them.
At the end of each class we would complete a quiz. The questions would be on the white board and we would use our phones to answer. For the whole semester a girl in the class named Amy would win the quiz every week. Whenever this happened Stephen would complain that the Internet on his phone was lagging and how annoying was that because it wasn’t fair. In one of the last classes though, Amy was away and so Stephen did start to win that week. As soon as his name appeared on the board as one of the leaders he made us all stop so he could take a photo of his name and his score, he grinned at us all, said “how good is that?” and then he put his phone down.
“Are you really not going to play anymore just because you’re winning?” I said.
“Oh is there more?’ he said.
“Yes,” I said. “The game doesn’t end just because you got to the top.”
When he eventually won he showboated in a victory lap around the classroom.
“I hate men,” I said.
He turned around. “Ahhh, you hate us when we win.”
This guy was a particular type of jerk, I know. Not all men, etc. But it’s indicative of a toxic culture when someone is allowed to thrive so shamelessly with so little self-awareness. Someone like that can think of themselves as worldly and cultured and experienced. And he is. He’s travelled, saved lives in his job, met many different type of people, and yet he has understood so little. His experiences have become something to wield, to laud over people, something used to dominate a room rather than to be a part of it.
It would be encouraging to think this entitled behaviour was on the way out, was symptomatic of an older generation, from a different time. But from studying Arts at univerisity, I know there is an even more dangerous breed of male on the rise: the “woke, white boy.” The woke white boy is one who is across all issues of intersectional feminism, who understands class structures and oppression and just wants to engage with you about these issues, to learn your perspective to understand how he can be better, how he can grow, what he can do, where does he fit into all of this, what should his perspective be? This boy pushes for sexual liberation but from a profoundly incapable emotional platform. He gets jealous easily. He freely compliments the bodies of his female friends and he congratulates himself on his comfort and ease with the opposite sex.
This guy almost always has artistic aspirations and he’s fine. He is largely inoffensive one-on-one, and is probably often a terrific friend. But as part of a population group, as part of a system, he is terrifying. He insists on reminding everyone of the group he belongs to and thereby the fact that he and this group overpowers them. He insists on inserting himself into every conversation. Nothing satisfies the woke white boy’s need to be included and consulted.
But this is the goddamn thing: you want to know how to be better, what you can actually do? Shut up. Stop talking. Stop trying. Stop taking up so much damn space. Stop making art because there is nothing you have to say that couldn’t be said by someone who hasn’t yet had the chance. But some of these men are my friends and how can I actually tell them to stop making art? Everyone deserves a chance to express themselves creatively. I only wish they would stop reminding people of their power, especially the ones they are holding down, the ones whose opportunities they are gobbling up.
The best thing my woke white boy friends can do is just go about their business. Be grateful for the opportunities they are given and then stay the heck out of everyone else’s way. We don’t need your help or your instructions or your feedback and we don’t need your perspective.
And what do you say when we’re not around? Maybe you should stop talking to women, stop talking to gay men and people of colour and start talking to each other. Start calling out other straight, white men, when they start talking shit. Maybe talk about these issues with your dickhead mate Joel for once, instead of me. But do it when there’s no one else in the room. When there’s nothing in it for you. Don’t tell people about it later. Don’t be rewarded and don’t try to redefine yourselves through those actions, just do them and shut up. Stop wasting our time. Stop being hypocrites and being hurt when we see through this.
It’s hard not to get angry when I talk about this topic. I tried to just include more funny stories, I really did. But I don’t want to be funny about it. I don’t want to have to make it a joke or risk “alienating people further.”
A year ago I went to Paris. I met a girl named Flore and we visited her best friend, a gay man named Jerome, in a town called Nantes. On the first night we went into a bar and it was cold and I was holding Flore’s hand to warm it. Jerome was making eyes at a cute boy at the next table. I was sitting with this beautiful girl and this beautiful boy. I was holding the girl’s hand and I should have been happy but inside I was panicking. I was thinking as soon as I looked around there was going to be some guy smirking at us. I was thinking, how could Jerome be so bold, how was he so sure that the boy he was looking at was even gay. I was thinking, as soon as we leave is someone going to follow us, someone is going to want to start a fight.
I looked around at all the middle-aged men in collared shirts tucked into blue jeans and leather belts. The nude paintings on the wall, the pierced ears. “Is this a gay bar?” I said. I relaxed. I had been to gay clubs in Brisbane but they always seemed more of a safe space for straight women than gay people. They also always seemed hypersexual and extroverted, both of which are great but things I am not. In a small bar in France, for one small moment in twenty-three years of life, in about three years of being out, I felt comfortable. I was with my friends, we were chatting and laughing. It was a wildly different experience of life for me. A deep relief.
How can you explain to evidence-obsessed men that the reason you’re afraid of them is simply because you’ve experienced a space without them? It’s a tree falling in the woods type situation. They’ll never know because they’ll never see it. It’s hard to talk about the impact of straight white men because it is so pervasive, so quiet and insidious. The effect is so constant that it’s difficult to break it up into stories or reason. That’s why it so easy for some men to ask us to explain ourselves, to offer evidence that they immediately shoot down as petty or weak or specific. It’s easy for them to shoot holes in our evidence because they are snippets out of an experience whose toxicity is in its wearying constancy.
Maybe these stories do seem petty, they’ve never resulted in violence for me personally, they have largely happened and then been swept away. But every time they do happen, and every time I think about them afterwards I’m reminded that I’m spending my life existing in spaces that don’t belong to me.
When was I most keenly affected by the presence of a straight, white man? When he wasn’t there.
A version of this was first performed at “Sticking it to the Straight White Man”: an event by La Boite Theatre.
Chloë Reeson is the Fiction and Comics Editor for Scum. Her own works of fiction and non-fiction have appeared with publications such as The Lifted Brow, Bumf, and Yen Magazine. She tweets sadlaffs @chloereeson.