In the Company of Men

“I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” — Groucho Marx

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” — The Great and Powerful Oz

My feelings about being a member of the dude club range somewhere between these two quotes. I have the privilege of “passing,” which means that the outside world reads me as male. I am also white, a native English speaker, and work in a white collar profession, which means that the outside world puts me in the highest social strata, based on my appearance. The truth, though, is that I was raised female in a middle-class family in Texas. I lived as a lesbian/queer woman for 16 years and consider myself to be a raging feminist.

This outward/inward dichotomy puts me in some interesting situations as I learn how to navigate male culture and privilege. I often feel like I’m undercover. A spy. An outsider sneaking around in disguise. I have thoughts like “Holy cow. They really don’t know, do they?”

This post is the first in what I imagine will be a series that might otherwise be titled “Sh*t Guys Say When They Think There Are No Women Around.”

So I’m in the elevator at work the other day. I work in a very big building in Downtown Los Angeles. It’s 51 stories tall, and full of mostly lawyers. Mornings are usually pretty crowded in the elevator bank, with throngs of suit-clad (or thankfully in my case, business casually clad) lawyers, paralegals, office workers, and other professionals making their way to work.

I get into the elevator with four men, all in suits, all appearing to be in their 30s and 40s. I don’t recognize any of them, and none are my coworkers. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had never seen any of them before.

I usually ride my bike or walk to work with my headphones in, and keep them on until I get to work, along with my sunglasses, so I can hang onto that “I’m not at work” feeling as long as possible before beginning my day. So I enter the elevator, swipe my key card, and move to the corner where I lean against the wall and wait to be whisked away to my office.

As the door is nearly closed, a woman makes it to the door in time to put an arm out and stop the doors from closing. She enters the elevator in a rush. She  apologizes to all of us for holding up the lift, and then pulls out her phone until her floor comes. She exits elevator.

Now, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to her as she stood there, I was busy messing with my phone and listening to Pearl Jam. I did notice two things:
1. She was wearing some very daring heels– peep toe, I believe.
2. Her skirt was shortish and tightish– the kind of skirt our career development people always said you shouldn’t wear to an interview.

As soon as she exits the elevator and the door closes, the man standing across the elevator from me says “Damn. I would not kick her out of bed. Right?” And then proceeded to look around at the rest of us for approval.

downloadWHAT!?!? My floor was next, and I barely had time to register what he’d said before I had to get off the elevator. I spent the next ten minutes processing what had happened. This man had read me as a guy, and then assumed that it would be totally okay with me to hear him talk about his sexual interest in that woman in the company of strangers.

After a few minutes, I began to feel guilty for not saying something back to him. I had missed an opportunity to educate that man, or at least make him (hopefully) think a little. I am not usually one to let things go unsaid, but I was honestly so shocked that I couldn’t respond. Upon reflection, here is what I should have said:
“That woman you just objectified, out loud, in front of a group of strangers, is a person. She’s someone’s daughter/sister/mother/partner. She’s not just a skirt and heels. She’s a human. And you have stripped her of all of that in one instant by reducing her to sexual object. And what’s worse is, you assume that we all agree with you. Don’t assume you know anything about strangers. We may be victims or survivors, and your words might hurt more than you know.”

Next time, I’ll be ready.