Understanding LGBTQ and LGBTQ Street Harassment Experiences

Street harassment: is it only a question of men against women?

Street harassment is a phenomenon that is only beginning to be understood and, more importantly, also identified as an issue. Because most people personally experience or witness street harassment as violence perpetrated by men against women. Recognizing that gender plays a role in street harassment is important. What harassers say is mostly related to the performance of gender roles; “Hey baby, I like how you walk”, said by a man to a woman for example, reinforces the consideration of women exclusively as sexual objects and the social belief that a woman is always in a seduction process even if she’s just crossing the street to buy bread.

Acknowledging this does not mean that we should close the door to other experiences of street harassment. The LGBTQ community reports street harassment issues and it does not make sense to consider these experiences as fundamentally different from those of women as traditionally understood.

LGBTQ? What?!

LGBTQ is the short name for the following group of people: lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and queer.

The three first groups are pretty transparent. It relates to the sexual orientation of people, i.e who you are sentimentally and physically attracted to. The other two groups require some clarification.

Transsexuals (trans-women or trans-men) are people who were assigned a gender and sex at birth, but grew up feeling this was not their right identity and are or want to be involved in a “transition”: passing from one gender to the other. This definition is quite generic and covers many different personal situations. A transgender woman is someone who identifies as a woman, no matter what sex was assigned to her at birth; and a transgender man is someone identifying as male.

In order not to exclude trans-women and trans-men from the “women” and “men”, you can find the terms: cis*women and cis*men, which identify the people who were assigned to a gender when they were born and still identify with this same gender. I.e, you are considered a girl or a boy since you’re born, you’re happy with that and you embrace it.

Queer may be used by anybody who identifies with a gender identity that is blurred. Gender identity does not boil down exclusively to “woman” and “man”: you may identify yourself anywhere between the two poles. Being queer does not involve a will to change your gender and/or sex, but simply to try to explain better who you are and how you self-identify as a person.

The Genderbread Person can help you understand that easily! — Click on it to enlarge!

the genderbread person

Some figures and statistics

Very little data exists on how widespread street harassment against LGBTQ is. It is already rare to find academic literature on street harassment against heterosexual cis*women; finding specific literature related to LGBTQ is almost a Mission: Impossible episode.

The existing data has mostly been collected in the USA. Transgender Americans reported in a survey they had already been verbally (53%) or physically (8%) harassed in public space. Another 2001 survey conducted in New York with the gay and lesbian communities showed that 64% of gay men and 59% of lesbians concealed their sexual orientation on the streets.

Why? Well, maybe because another American study unveiled that 86% of openly lesbian women had already been verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation… Recent unpublished results reveal that 67% of gay and bisexual American men do not even make eye contact with others on the street by fear of being harassed.

Hollaback!Croatia interrogated a pool of 446 women and 54 male, most of them heterosexual, and asked them to rank the characteristics that would put a person at risk for street harassment. Not surprisingly, “female identity” arrived first. But guess what? “Public expression of homosexuality” ranked second, with 80% of women and 74% of men identifying this as a risk factor.

photo cw2

Chalk Walk #3 – Sint Pietersstation, International Anti-Street Harassment Week 2013, Ghent

The same survey showed that queerness or any behaviour not in line with gender identity, for example being a “masculine” girl or a “feminized” boy, is also very likely to attract street harassers. If you have doubts about it, you can just watch this video [watch from 1:14:07 to 1:15:30].

This French TV documentary (and this is not a show that has a history of deep investigation or of involvement with the LGBTQ community…) featured a heterosexual young man, walking with his girlfriend in a park, while he was wearing a skirt. Two cis*men verbally harass him and assaulting him, apparently having much fun chasing him in the park – in front of the camera recording.

What they say when assaulting him is basically that his behaviour is dangerous for the children in the park. As his girlfriend underlines, “Well, what kind of example do THEY give to those kids?!”.

LGBTQ testimonies of harassment

Some testimonies of LGBTQ’s experiences with street harassment may be found on the Internet. A 30 year-old South African lesbian reported for example being harassed on the street by a heterosexual cis*male teenager while she was in her car with her girlfriend. He told them: “Hey, you two girls are sexy. It’s a pity you’re lesbians”. When she confronted him, the teenager got physically threatening without triggering any reaction from the bystanders. An American lesbian blogger shared her story of being harassed by construction workers passing by in a truck when she was hugging her girlfriend on the street, and wondered about what strategies might be used by lesbians to respond to such behaviours.

But such testimonies are still rare. No LGBTQ has yet shared a story of street harassment on the Hollaback!Gent website. However, during our last chalkwalks, we wondered on how to better integrate more LGBTQ community members in our movement by creating a space where they feel safe and respected enough to share such experiences.

Academic research on those topics is scarce. But what currently exists shows that LGBTQ experience a minority stress , which means a systematic stigmatization. Being marginalized, LGBTQ people become more vulnerable to discrimination – including harassment in public spaces. A more recent study interrogated a pool of transgender women and men, asking them about their experiences in overt and covert discrimination. Overt harassment would be people calling you names on the street; covert harassment is more about people looking at you in a judgmental way, with their eyes saying “what the fuck is wrong with you, sick person”. And both forms are experienced by transgender people as coming from both cis*women and cis*men…

Many participants reported having been harassed on the street. A transgender woman testified: “A couple of boys came in and started saying [in a threatening tone] ‘Why are you dressed like that? You’re a guy, what’s wrong with you?’ “. Transgender women are not the only ones to experience street harassment because of their transgender status; transgender men go through the same things. A transgender male participant shared: “This guy was like ‘Yo, is that a dude or is that a woman’ (…) and then he came up to me and said ‘Yo, yo, you have a dick or pussy?’ And I was just like ‘Why does it matter?’ “

What can Hollaback!Ghent do?

LGBTQ and street harassment is high on the agenda for future Holla activities. Here are some specific topics that will most probably be brought up during the discussions:

  • ChalkWalk4 Zuid

    Chalk Walk #5 – Zuid, Anti-Street Harassment International Week 2013, Ghent

    slogans for chalk walks: do we really want to keep statements such as “Real men do not harass”, which were used in Ghent and in other cities in the past? We should develop more slogans targeting LGBTQ.

  • What other actions could be useful to reach out this community?

  • What LGBTQ organizations could Hollaback!Ghent build relations and potential partnerships in Ghent?

If you have any suggestions regarding LGBTQ and street harassment, please do not hesitate to contact us to share them!

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