As a transgender man, I am in the fairly unique position of having lived the first 24 years of my life as a woman before transitioning to living as a man full-time. In those first 24 years, I was exposed to the social conditioning all women absorb whether they want to or not. And hailing from a religious, conservative culture as a white Afrikaner South African, I learned these lessons well. The conditioning involved messages such as: women are there to satisfy men’s needs and desires, women shouldn’t make a fuss, women should be submissive.
Since 1998, I have lived my life in Canada. Like many Canadians, I was caught off-guard by the news that broke over the past weekend about Jian Ghomeshi. The story goes that the beloved CBC radio host and Canadian personality has been fired for sexual misconduct. Multiple women (8 so far) have since come forward claiming that he sexually assaulted them.
At first I was incredulous. Partly because I admire the interviewing skills he displayed on his show Q with Jian Ghomeshi; it’s hard to accept something so unpleasant about someone you respect. Partly also because I simply didn’t see it coming and I like to think of myself as a pretty perceptive person.
Of course, there’s no reason why I would have seen it coming. I don’t move in Jian’s circles. I have never met the man. All I know of him is the highly polished version of him I have listened to on the radio. And yet people with such darkness, a darkness that apparently made it seem OK for him to beat women repeatedly in the head or choke them until they couldn’t breathe, surely that kind of darkness should be visible somehow, in his face or voice or demeanour? Instead he looks like an ordinary man. How can this be?
The revelations that have followed have triggered, as I imagine it has for many women (and men), unwanted memories of my own assault. It happened on a Greyhound bus nearly 15 years ago now, when I was a 20-year-old university student on my way home from Quebec City to Victoria. What happened to me wasn’t nearly as violent as what happened to the women that Jian attacked. And yet the memory of it still disorients me. Especially the shame and guilt that came with it.
My story is almost banal in its simplicity. I had a window seat about halfway down the left-hand side of the Greyhound bus. A large Texan man in his 50s, with greasy hair and a MacDonald’s paper bag, sat down next to me. He had no problem taking up his entire seat – and some of mine. I remember the nauseating smell of fast food and stale sweat. He settled into eating and I pressed myself further into my corner; I tried to distract myself with the scenery outside.
It just sort of happened. His hand landed on my knee, like an innocent butterfly landing on a stick. He kept it there. Then he slowly, incrementally, moved it up, toward my crotch, until his fingers were millimetres away from my genitals. He wasn’t looking at me. Nor I at him. I was completely frozen. I had no idea how to react. I felt shock, horror, rage, disgust. And yet I did nothing. Fear paralyzed me. I couldn’t squeeze by him without making a fuss. I didn’t want to make a fuss. Surely he would stop. He had to stop. Soon, right? I looked around for an empty seat nearby. I saw nothing.
His fingers started to rub against my clitoris through my clothes. I coughed. I finally said, shakily: “excuse me”, and rose as if nothing were wrong. As if I was just going on a bathroom break. I felt numb. He barely moved enough for me to push past him. He smiled confidently. I clumsily made my way to the bathroom at the back of the bus. And trembled in the tiny stall as I tried to figure out how to extricate myself from this incomprehensible situation. I was not equipped to deal with this kind of behaviour. My heart raced. I felt so confused. All I wanted to do was cry. But something in me told me not to show weakness.
When I could stay there no longer, I made my way back toward the front of the bus. It turns out there was another empty seat available. Relieved, I sat down in it and tried to ignore the Texan, who eventually noticed I’d moved. He looked over at me as if to ask why I wasn’t there next to him. He seemed perfectly at ease.
At the next stop, a woman, middle-aged, well put together, climbed on board. She sat down next to the Texan. I wanted to warn her but didn’t know what to say. After all, he hadn’t done anything violent. Maybe I’d given off the wrong signal or something. Maybe it was just me.
It wasn’t. Soon after, the woman announced loudly, so that everyone on the bus could hear her: “Stop that, you pervert!”. I’m paraphrasing here. I don’t remember her exact words. I do remember feeling so proud of her, for speaking up. Unlike me.
No one said anything. She moved away from him. She went up to speak to the bus driver, who told her there was nothing he could do. She switched places with a male rider. The Texan leaned toward his new neighbour and grumbled loudly: “women these days have no sense of fun”.
Of course, the driver could have done something. He could have stopped the bus. He could have ordered the man to get off. He could have at least spoken to him. But it was pretty clear the driver didn’t want to be bothered. To him, it was no big deal. No one seemed to want to get involved.
When we got off the bus for a break, I approached the woman and told her that the Texan had tried the same thing with me. We commiserated for a moment then went our separate ways. I never saw her again. Nor the Texan. He left too, shortly after. He walked away quietly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
The rest of the trip was non-eventful all the way to Vancouver. But I couldn’t shake what had happened. In fact, I couldn’t stop shaking. What went through my mind wasn’t about what a creep he had been, although there was that. My thoughts revolved around how humiliated I felt, how weak I must be that I hadn’t been able to speak up and tell him to stop. I re-played the tape of events in my mind, looking for anything to explain why he thought he could get away with what he did. I looked for signals I must have given off, to invite this kind of treatment. I felt dirty, vulnerable and small.
Once I arrived in Vancouver, I called my sister in tears. I tried to explain what had happened but I struggled to articulate it. No, nothing had happened, I said. A guy had made me feel uncomfortable on the bus. What else is new? My sister, unable to understand why I was so upset, offered little sympathy.
I vowed I would never take a Greyhound bus ever again. And for almost 10 years, I didn’t.
I hate what Jian Ghomeshi did to the women who came forward, and to the many out there that I imagine fear telling their stories but are traumatized nonetheless. I respect and admire the courage of the women who have agreed to speak out publicly. It can’t be easy. Especially when you are speaking out against a public figure who has been so loved by so many for so long. Who wants to re-live such a painful experience, and then get attacked for expressing it? Why sign up for that?
I’m glad that out of all of this, a fervent public discourse is unfolding about the reality of sexual harassment and assault. We need to talk about this, openly. It needs to stop. We need to stop turning a blind eye just because it’s uncomfortable to look at. Silence is not consent. Violence is not consensual if it’s based on the victim’s silence.
*Photo by Volkan Olmez (unsplash.com)