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30th January 2017

LGBT History Month: Street Harassment

In the first of a four-part series on the continuing relevance of LGBT History Month, Michael Petch discusses the progress that the needs to be made on the street

February is LGBT history month, but with the recent growth of LGBT rights, many are asking why we still need a month dedicated to LGBT people. Hopefully, throughout this series, I will be able to argue why LGBT history month matters by examining the experiences that LGBT people face.

Street harassment is a violation of such a basic part of everyday life and something that I personally have encountered. Having discussed it with some of my LGBT friends, they too have received verbal abuse and physical intimidation. Depending on the encounter, such incidents can be anything from baffling to terrifying.

The first incident of harassment I encountered in Manchester was more on the baffling side of things. I was walking to university, outside the church near the Stopford Theatre, when someone stood in front of me to block my path and said, “You alright queer?”. It didn’t actually sink in at first; I just automatically stepped around him and continued on to the Samuel Alexander building, where it finally hit me what he had actually said. I did not actually feel too intimidated, as it just felt so out of place, though I still think of it whenever I walk down that road. Things like this have happened on other roads, and in other cities, and it still causes some discomfort.

I have also experienced more physical abuse. Just outside my university hall in first year, a bottle was thrown out of a car at me as someone shouted “batty”. This felt much more intimidating as it happened less than five minutes from somewhere I called home. Equally, this happened at night and there were a few men in the car, so the possibility of being assaulted was much higher.

Interestingly, I noticed that I started to get much more harassment after I had bleached my hair and got a septum piercing. Equally, I get glances and hear whispers when holding hands with my boyfriend, even now that my hair is back to a natural colour and I no longer wear my piercing visibly. I think this speaks a lot about the attitudes towards LGBT folk, whereby people now say that they don’t mind, but that they don’t want to see it. It’s almost as though by me dressing in a certain way or hugging another man offends them, and they simply must correct me.

I found myself wondering if the experience is the same for lesbian couples, and so I reached out to a fellow member of the LGBTQ Society, an English literature student, who had previously mentioned some of the harassment she had faced. The majority of her harassment centred around the fetishisation of lesbianism. She has had “groups of men shouting various things…‘kiss her’, ‘get off with her’, ‘I want to watch’”. This is not something I have encountered; the majority of my harassment has been at the hands of men. Interestingly enough, all of her experiences of harassment have also been carried out by men. This is, of course, not to say that all men are harassers; rather, that the majority of harassers in these instances are men, regardless of their victim.

Finally, I wanted to discuss with her how she felt, both at the time and looking back: “Scared, mostly, especially when they happened at night”. The threat of sexual violence is far more present as a woman in the night. In addition to the aforementioned sexual jeers, the fearful reaction is understandable.

Equally, these experiences ring true for trans people. The Trans Mental Health Study (2012) conducted research that found 81 per cent of trans people have encountered silent harassment, and a further 38 per cent have encountered sexual harassment specifically on account of them being trans.

This can worsen their gender dysphoria — a condition or feeling whereby a person is distressed with, and can be severely depressed by, some factor of themselves which in some way conflicts with their gender identity. Many slurs used against trans people imply in some way that they are being deceptive by moving away from the gender that they were identified as at birth. This can cause conflict with regards to gender identity and so may worsen their feelings of dysphoria.

To come full circle, the problem of street harassment tells us a lot about why LGBT History Month still matters. Pride and defiance have always been an important part of our history. We should not just take these incidents of harassment as a given part of our lives; they should be spoken about and called out. These people should know that their opinions are outdated. My friend says that she feels angry after having such experiences. We need to collectively channel these feelings of outrage to motivate change. With recent legislation calling for better LGBT education in schools being shot down, we as a community must take it upon ourselves to not allow the ideals of liberty behind this bill to be worn away.

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