The Long Walk Home: Experiencing the City as a Woman at Night

Last night I drove my car out to West Philly and planned to catch the trolley back to Center City and my apartment. It was about 11:15 pm. I felt reasonably wary, standing under a streetlamp on a corner in a city in the middle of the night. I had my earphones in–as is my custom–less to listen to music and more to ward off any unwelcome human interaction. A few minutes after arriving at the trolley stop, I turned up the volume on my music to drown out the sound of a car full of men who were catcalling and making salacious comments toward me while they waited for the light to change.

As the minutes dragged on, I became more and more nervous, and when a man walked past me and then lingered 15 feet away or so, I felt the beginnings of legitimate panic blossom in my chest. I tried to ignore him and carefully avoided eye contact. After a few minutes, I realized he was waving to get my attention. With my heart pounding, I looked up at him. He was gesturing toward me and looking angry and saying something I couldn’t quite make out.

“What?” I said, more anxious than ever.

“You’re making yourself a target,” he said again, and then gestured to my earphones. “You’re an easy target. Someone could walk up behind you and you’d never know.”

My panic morphed into an uncomfortable mixture of embarrassment and cold fear. Glancing at the dark street behind me, I knew that he was right.

“Thanks,” I said, nodding with a grimace dressed up as a smile as I removed my earphones. He hung around for a few moments, presumably to look out for me, and then apologized and headed off into the night.

It struck me that my experiences at the bus stop spoke to three screwed up realities about being a woman:

1.) I used music to drown out the inevitable sexual comments and sounds thrown at me by men and thus made myself an easy target for legitimate predators.
2.) By contrast, turning off my music to be more aware of impending threats required me to be fully present for all of the abusive and degrading comments offered me.
3.) My wariness in response to both of the above made me naturally hesitant to identity and receive help and advice when it was offered.

Several long minutes later, I saw the trolley appear up the road and stepped out into the street to make my presence known. The trolley sped right past me.

Frustration warred with renewed panic in my chest. Knowing it would mean another 20 minutes of risk to wait for another trolley and seeing no taxis, I began the 45 block walk home.

My guard was fully up and at first I stuck to the well-lit major road that I was on. I stopped at another trolley stop closer in to town and was passed again. At this point, I resigned myself to walking the full 4+ miles home and cut over to University City which was well lit and somewhat more populated, and where my whiteness, my youth, and my backpack were less distinctive markers.

Over the course of my long walk back to my apartment, my mind raced. Here is what I thought:

– I wish the rain hadn’t soaked my jeans and left me wearing these leggings and short shorts.
– I wonder if my short hair makes me more or less of a target? My long legs? My relative lack of make up?

At a certain point, my heart still beating a steadily panicked rhythm, I decided that it was more likely than not that something bad would happen to me, and my thoughts shifted:

– If I end up dead, everyone will say that I was stupid for walking home.
– If I die, everyone will say that my shorts and leggings meant that I was asking for it.
– I know that if you’re being raped, it’s smartest to just give in, but could I really ever live with myself if I didn’t fight?
– If something happened and I went to the police, would they believe me? Would it be more trouble than it’s worth?
– I wonder what it’s like for women who are homeless? How often do they get violated?

I made it home just fine. Maybe I was never in danger, or maybe a different choice of routes would have ended much worse. 24 hours later, so much of me is embarrassed to post this; to make a big deal out of it. But I’m posting it nonetheless. Because what’s disturbing about my experience is not that it was particularly unique or particularly harrowing. What’s disturbing is that it isn’t. And it’s even more disturbing that I had more than 4 miles worth of thoughts about rape, and the danger of being female, and worst case scenarios to think through. And perhaps most disturbing of all is that the next morning I felt silly even talking about it. Because there’s a name for what I experienced Sunday night; there’s something we call it.

We call it “being a woman” and we say “that’s just the way it is.”

But it shouldn’t be. We live in a world that turns women into objects and then acts surprised when men treat them inhumanly. We live in a world that criticizes men who aren’t predatory enough, and that blames women for their own abuse. We live in a world that looks at the disturbing, atrocious reality of being a woman today and says “that’s just the way it is.”

I say, it’s high time we stopped being so comfortable with saying that that’s what it means to be a woman. It’s well past time that, instead, we said, “no more.”

Queering the Church

Recently, I spent a weekend in community and conversation with an inspiringly sizable number of my fellow queer Presbyterian leaders. We were all either recently ordained, or hoping to be in the future, and we spent our weekend talking about and dreaming on behalf of the church that we love, even as it still struggles to fully love us.

It was a hard conversation, one of raw wounds and deep pain and anger, but it nevertheless left me feeling hopeful. Early in the weekend, we were discussing privilege as it plays out in the queer community and people kept challenging ideas and calling out flaws and after a short time we had coined a new term–“complexification”–to describe our process of analyzing and naming problematic assumptions in our thinking and engaging in active suspicion of over-simplication (particularly in regard to binaries, polarities, and one-dimensional categorizations). Instead, we offered up nuance and personalizations. It was challenging, but ultimately essential and liberating. This is so much of what it means to inhabit queer space and queer identity, and I am beginning to realize that it is so much of what it means to be church.

As people we’re drawn to classifications and simplifications to help us understand and unify in our likeness. But so often this effort can lead to reduction, dehumanization, and division. In our effort to understand and define God’s creation we often deny ourselves the chance to bear witness to its full wonder. Our possibilities are infinite just like our Creator. Our truest unity comes from our intentional and universal particularity—by the fact that we are each too complicated to be reduced to common denominators.

Being queer and learning to navigate a world that tells one that they must not be forces a person to embrace complexification. And as the church struggles to reconcile with its own problematic history, its increasingly diverse body, and a reputation of obsoleteness in constructing a more just world—it too is being forced to embrace complexification.

I am glad that the queer community is slowly but surely being invited into church leadership. I’m glad not only because I am a part of that community, but also because I’m a member of the church – and the church needs queer leaders to help it evolve and grow into what God is calling it to be.

The church is in the process of coming to terms with its shifting identity. It is being called to embrace and engage with those who disagree with it. To embody and encourage mutual vulnerability at the risk of rejection, hate, and violence even by those it loves. It is called to uplift individuals standing in the full and unique truth of who they are, all in the name of uplifting the full truth of a complexified world. The church is called to empathy, resilience, and solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed. It’s being compelled to take action and make hard choices in the name of truth.

Who better to help the church embrace the queerness of a complexified reality than those who have been through this process themselves; those who understand queerness intimately?

Here we are.

So I am hopeful. It’s not a simple hope. It’s complexified. Thanks be to God.

Do You Hear the People Sing? (Reflections on the Texas Filibuster)

I suppose it is old news now that this past Tuesday a bill that would effectively shut down almost every abortion clinic in the state of Texas was prevented from passing by the efforts of State Senator Wendy Davis and a particularly raucous crowd of women’s rights activists. The nature of my job is such that I did not have time to really read about all that happened until this weekend, but now that I have – I am amazed and inspired.

Wendy Davis filibustered for nearly 11 hours and not only managed to stay on topic—per Texas filibuster rules—but continued to show emotional conviction throughout the long ordeal. Davis is undoubtedly fierce—a singular individual to be respected and admired. Proof that sometimes, one strong, sure, committed voice can hold back the tide.

But the most inspiring lessons I learned from last Tuesday night in Texas, came not from Davis herself, but from the people who followed her lead and took up her cry when she had been silenced. From them I learned:

1) Solidarity means showing up. I’m currently over a thousand miles away from Austin, TX. I want to tell you that had I been in town, I would have been one of the many incessant voices causing courageous cacophony in that Capitol building during the waning moments of June 25th. But I don’t really know. I might have been tired. I might have had other plans. I can’t promise that I would have been one of those brave voices last Tuesday, but having seen it happen, I hope that next time I will be.

All of those people standing in the room and in the atrium, crouching down against walls and tweeting updates and chowing down on donated pizza undoubtedly had other plans. Other priorities. They came to the Capital to fight for justice. To watch the voices in the room battle it out and stand in support. They were there to be a presence, and then the room shifted. And they became the voice. I can’t help but wonder: what if they had been too busy? Too tired? Too afraid? What if each of them had believed that their voice was too insignificant to matter? Would one less voice have been enough to quell the outrage and bring about deadly silence? Maybe.

2) Sometimes anger helps. These women and men were angry. That’s what drove them to cry out. I doubt that the great cry began as a political strategy to hold off a vote by perpetuating disorder. I think they were just too angry to keep quiet anymore. This is important because I think we’re often taught that anger is never a good thing. But sometimes hope is born at the meeting of anger and action. Sometimes letting yourself be angry is what allows you to believe that things could be different.

So often change and justice are about dialogue, patience, planning, collaboration, and strategy. But Texas taught me that we need a reserve tank of courage for the moments when change and justice stand on the shoulders of the ones who show up, and let their anger fuel their hope, who believe that their participation matters—that they matter.

Sometimes it comes down to the ones who yell like hell.