Once, in my Introductory Sociology course, I gave a lecture about social oppression. It was fairly abstract. I didn’t talk about any specific kind of social oppression, like gender oppression or racial oppression or sexual oppression. I just talked about oppression, like what it is and how it works and what it feels like or rather what the philosopher Marilyn Frye says it is and how it works and what it feels like.
Using her classic metaphor I paraphrased that oppression was like, as Frye describes it, the wires of a birdcage, as she writes: Cages … Consider a birdcage … If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires … If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere … Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would gave trouble going past the wires to get anywhere …
There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way … It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment … It will require no great subtlety of mental powers … It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon … And on and on and on. You get the idea. Like I said, the lecture was abstract.
Following the lecture, two of the students taking my course left me a note, which wasn’t very abstract at all. It read, You’re sexually desirable, but a dyke for sure, too bad you’re a lesbian, what a waste, using very coarse and ugly expletives for the sexually desirable, dyke, and lesbian parts. Then underneath it read: She is as gay as they come carpet-muncher! seriously! Part of the note is posted above.
The first thing I thought when I read the note was that in all my years of studying feminist and queer popular culture I had never heard the word carpet muncher before. The second thing I thought was Oh my god, some student in my class today thinks I’m sexually desirable, how can that be, I didn’t even look that good today. Then, after these two initial thoughts, I gathered my books, walked down to my office, locked the door behind me and cried.
This wasn’t the first time someone called me lesbian. Once, in Grade Seven, three of my closest girlhood friends took it upon themselves to tell me I was gay, which at the time I found really confusing, since I thought you had to be a young, cute man to be gay, like Jack Tripper, the young, cute man who pretended to be gay so he could live platonically with two girls on the sit-com Three’s Company.
But it was the first time someone called me a lesbian where I couldn’t see where the words were coming from, where I couldn’t see their face. It was the anonymity of their hate that saddened and, in that moment that it happened, scared me, that made me feel the exact opposite of that slightly self-conscious feeling you might get upon learning that someone secretly loves you, that someone might secretly care.
That’s what a hate crime feels like when it happens to you: Like the opposite of knowing that someone has secretly made you the object of a crush.
To crush is, after all, to press. More from Marilyn Frye: The root of the word oppression is the element press … The press of the crowd … Pressed into military service … To press a pair of pants … Printing press … Press the button … Presses are used to mold things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk, sometimes to reduce them by squeezing out the gases or liquids in them … Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility … Mold .. Immobilize … Reduce …
Which is why, I guess, its so important to name the places where hate comes from. To mark it and give it a name. Then we can start to figure out the dynamics of our own self-hatred and sorrow and fear, which, hopefully might lead to a better understanding of our self.
The sadness and fear didn’t last long, however, at least not in my memory. Since if there’s one thing I learned from Marilyn Frye (and from not caring that April Hamilton and Nan Crawford and Tracey Gilmore, those three girlhood friends of mine, said that I was queer), its that social oppression, as debilitating and burdensome as it may be, can also be defied.
So when people inevitably ask me after I tell this story: Did you ever figure out who the students were who wrote you that note, did you ever figure out their name? Or, sometimes even more boldly: Well, is it true what that note said, are you a carpet muncher, are you queer? I answer them exactly the same way I did when I posed those same very questions to my unidentified haters, who sat hidden in the crowd of students who made up my Introductory Sociology class that year: The answer to one of those questions is — yes.