In the spring of my senior year in college, an event took place on campus that changed me forever. It was called a Speak-Out, and it was organized by the school’s Women’s Center. Those running the Speak-Out set up an open microphone and loudspeakers at the upper end of the residential quadrangle that was home to the school’s few fraternities and social dorms. And on a cool, rainy morning, at a rally that followed a silent march through campus, one woman after another stepped forward to tell their stories of humiliation, harassment, misogyny, homophobia, abuse, assault, and rape.
Many of the stories they told focused on their treatment at the hands of men who lived in the buildings surrounding the crowd that gathered there that morning. Other incidents they described took place elsewhere. Almost all of them involved members of our university community. The impromptu remarks these women offered were raw, shocking, eye-opening, deeply personal, heartrending. Nearly everyone who spoke cried. Nearly everyone listening cried. I know I did. I believe — I hope — that for many in attendance the event proved cathartic.
I remember that day vividly and, thirty-five years later, I still think of it often. I knew some of the women who spoke, either in passing or fairly well. But that was less important than this: I knew intimately the behaviors, attitudes, and actions they described.
I had always thought of myself as a sensitive, enlightened guy. I suppose, by comparison to some, I was. I learned that day, though, that men don’t have to be rude to be guilty of harassment, that we don’t have to be abusers to be abusive, that we don’t have to be rapists to be complicit in emotional assault. I recognized in myself, and in too many of the guys I hung out with, just the sorts things the courageous women at the Speak-Out described.
The Speak-Out was intended to give voice to women who, for too long, had been ignored on our campus. It was also an emotional cudgel aimed at the privilege of well-to-do Ivy League men. But to my mind, it was an incredible gift. I said at the outset that the day changed me, changed my life, and it’s true. What I learned about myself that day forced me to rethink every relationship, current (at the time) and past. And the lessons of that day have echoed through every day and every relationship since. They made me a better person, a better friend, a better romantic partner; ultimately they made me a better husband and a better father to my daughters.
Jump ahead thirty-five years, and in recent days, with several men in the science fiction/fantasy field being outed as serial harassers and abusers, the Speak-Out has been on my mind even more than usual. Three and a half decades later, we are still fighting the same battles. Women are still struggling to be heard and believed. Men are still hiding behind our privilege in order to perpetuate a gender hierarchy that ignores and even rewards unacceptable behavior.
And as with issues of race, which I have written about frequently in the past month (here, here, and here), it falls to those of us in the privileged group to change and speak up and act. For too, too long, women have been calling out the harassers and abusers and assaulters, and still those men continue to harass and abuse and assault. Many of my friends in the industry have offered themselves as protectors at conventions and other public events, and I admire them for that. I offer the same to my friends regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. If you need me, I am here for you.
But we men have to do more than that. We have to call out the guys who do this shit, not just in response to public incidents, but also in the privacy of male-to-male conversations where, too often, we offer shelter and complicity by not speaking up, by not drawing attention to sexism, objectification, homophobia, trans-directed prejudice, misogyny, and worse. We have to be more than heroes. We have to be advocates, even when it’s uncomfortable.
Those who suffer the most from the harassment and abuse found their voices long ago, and they continue to speak now — with courage, with conviction, with candor. Yes, we hear them. Yes, we believe them. But no, that isn’t enough.
Now, we have to speak out ourselves.
Wishing you all a good week.