, ,

Last week, Barry and I took a two-day trip up to Sydney.  The day was beautiful – sunny and relaxed – and the evening was balmy and lovely.  We had gone up to Sydney for an exciting conference dinner I’d heard about, organised by the UN Women’s new Sydney Chapter.  The theme was “Gender Justice and the International Criminal Court” and in between the entrée and the main meal we were treated to a thought-provoking panel discussion on just how much the ICC has done in the ten years of its existence as far as international gender issues and crimes were concerned.  As the desserts came out we took the opportunity to meet other people passionate about gender issues, from lawyers to community workers and even architectural historians, and left the dinner feeling inspired and motivated to keep the gender ball rolling.

Upon getting back to our hotel, Barry and I, realising we’d eaten too much to be able to just go to sleep, went for a short stroll up and down Oxford Street, which was right near our hotel.  It was a Thursday evening (about 11pm) and the nightlife was already on the up and up.

As we were approaching the hotel upon our return, a group of about five guys seemed to appear out of nowhere and began walking close – a little too close – behind us. They were being a little loud and vaguely aggressive. At one stage I had to pass one guy who had stopped in front of us and he made no move to get out of my path so I had to turn to the side to avoid a full frontal brush with him. At this point, we still thought nothing much of the guys other than that they were a bit loud and were clearly out for a good night.

As we entered the hotel, however, we noticed that they appeared to be following us into the lobby. We instantly began to feel uneasy, but I was relieved to note the doorman (yes, man) was at the elevator. Yet, to my dismay, he entered the lift and disappeared. Our feelings of unease began to rise. By this point we were in the lobby and it was clear that the group of guys were, too. They were clearly not patrons of the hotel and were hovering just a couple of metres behind us with no apparent purpose in the hotel at all. The only other person there was the girl behind the desk, who was on the phone.

I was chatting to Barry, but it became apparent that neither of us was concentrating on whatever I was saying. Keeping our cool, we managed to telepathically communicate our concern and Barry suggested we go to the bathroom in the foyer (we couldn’t just get into the lift and go to our room, as once we got in the lift and swiped the key, we would be pretty vulnerable if the guys got in, too). So in we went to the bathroom – our man-free safe zone – standing like fools for five minutes.

Immediately, we both then began to rage about why we should have to do that. A mixture of fear and absolute indignation brought on a rant such as neither of us had had in a while and it took us a long time to regain our calm and to lose that sense of uneasiness – not to mention the cold sweat we both broke as the guys followed us into the hotel.

This is what remains unfair about the gender difference.  There have been many occasions where I’ve had to be conscious of my actions and my environment and where I have had to do something inconvenient to avoid feeling threatened. As far as I can tell, of course with some exceptions, guys are generally neutral in most of their surroundings and in control of their environment. They meld in and can generally feel comfortable wherever.  The public environment is theirs to dominate. In a world such as that, what remains for us women? Where can we feel comfortable?  Where is our domain?  (As often as they have proved a safe haven for us, bathrooms definitely do not count.)

Before you cry “nay”, consider the experience of transgendered female-to-males.  Many have attested to the vast different they feel when presenting as men.  As men, they feel completely at ease being alone at night, in parks and more generally in public environments.  Compare this to their experiences when presenting as women, where, as transgendered individuals I’ve personally talked to, and in documented studies, have said, they often feel more vulnerable.

In the end, both Barry and I got over it (for want of a better expression).  After our hideout in the bathroom, we returned to our hotel room and continued our debrief.  We processed the experience as rationally and calmly as we could (with just the odd “agh, they’re all a bunch of cocks!”) and after half an hour or so, we were okay again.  But the experience has left lasting consequences, not least of which was the utter destruction of the loveliness of our trip (at least as far as Barry is concerned).

The worst thing, perhaps, is that this all happened after our enriching experience at the post-conference dinner.  The transition from feelings of hope, empowerment and sisterhood at the dinner to the desperate sensations of fear and vulnerability in our hotel lobby were so craftily juxtaposed, it’s as if it was done from above.  But as unpleasant as the experience was, in a way, it wasn’t all bad.  If nothing else, our two days in Sydney gave us the perspective to wonder. Achieving gender goals on the international scale is an excellent, most valuable thing, but before we set our sights on sex crimes happening in far away lands, perhaps we should check what’s happening in front of our eyes, right here in Australia.  How can we take leaps and bounds on the international scale if we can’t even take a step outside our front doors?

          Humphrey and Barry, the Bathroom Fugitives.