“Yo let me talk you,” he shouted. I turned, face tightening around my eyes. A young man stood on the steps of the building, gripping his crotch and pointing at the girls next to me. Eyebrows raised, they glanced at each other and quickly walked. “Yo I’m talking to you bitch!” he yelled. I stared at him and then down Nostrand Avenue as women marched through a gauntlet of men, who leaned in to seduce them and cursed the women who didn’t stop. It was like a hazing ritual.
I called my friend and said, “I hate spring in the ghetto. Every ignorant dick without a job keeps busy by catcalling.” She took a long breath and said, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Heat rose in my face as she said, “I’m happy you’re mad, but as a male feminist what are you going to do?”
The question rang in my head. How does it feel to be a problem? As a man who learned feminist theory, it’s an inevitable question. Just walking in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, I see teenage girls prowled by older men or boys on the corner shouting “bitch” and “pussy” to show off. Or I see Black women in hip-hop magazines, oiled and wearing bikinis, while fashion magazines show men in suits. Or I hear my friend telling me how she was raped and saw her attacker on the subway and he casually talked to her until she screamed. Each event connects to the next with one continuous sexist ideology.
And seeing this ideology is liberating. I can separate women from the imagery of hood-rats, chicken heads, tip drills or jump offs. And I can dump the ignitable pride of machismo that gets young men killed. But it also leaves one feeling stranded among people who are blindly hurting themselves.
Returning home, I looked on my shelf for bell hook’s Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. I had bought it in college during a ravenous time of reading and saw on its yellowed pages my old notes. Her writing led me to Gloria Anzaldua and Toni Morrison, Margaret Mead and the SCUM Manifesto. Each book was like a microscope and I saw in my behavior, sexist ideas that I inherited from history and society. But recognizing sexist tendencies was only the first step. The next was placing the experiences of others under the same lens.
My mother was qualified for jobs, but not hired. I saw a photo of a woman who died in hotel, trying to give herself an abortion because they weren’t legal yet. During The Killers, Ronald Reagan slapped a woman and everyone howled with laughter. I began to see the pattern of gender violence. The more I recognized sexism the more guilt I felt. My unexamined privileges became as bright as neon. In my last year of college, it got to a fever pitch. I carried around a Ken doll and would point to the absent genitalia and say, “This is how all men should be.”
Guilt is a rite of passage for a male feminist but so is transforming that guilt into wonder. Feminist values create a world of emotional transparency. I glimpsed this world at antiwar protests where men and women fought against police, calling each other “sister” and “brother.” But it wasn’t until Burning Man in 2002 that I experienced true gender equality. In the sun-bleached Nevada desert, 30,000 people built a city on the principles of radical self-expression and decommodified immediate experience. Many women walked around nude, topless or in elaborate costumes and for the most part, men did not leer or stalk.
In that free space, women walked with a confidence and power because they weren’t selling themselves to a male gaze but expressing desire in their own language. Surveying the magazines at an airport news stand before my flight back to New York, I was struck by how the female body was used like a sponge to wash down cars or watches or male celebrities.
Feminism does not need male guilt; it needs male desire for freedom. Whole dimensions of the male psyche open up when sexist power dynamics are shut off. And it is a world worth fighting for. When my friend called me back and asked how I was doing, I told her my bag was filled with chalk and I was writing anti-sexual harassment slogans on the sidewalk. “What are you going to write?” she asked. I said, “Imagine a white man called you a nigger. That’s how a woman feels when you call her a bitch.” After a long pause she said, “Not bad. It’s a start.”