Thursday, 21 August 2008

All aboard the 19 bus to chaos!

Whilst on my solitary bus journey home the other day I witnessed what was perhaps the single most funny event of my whole five years in London. Catching buses to and from the west end where I work gives me about two hours reading time, so I am usually to be found as near as I can get to the back, head down and shoulders hunched (hence my posture is more Quasimodo than Darcy Bussell). At the moment, my text of choice is Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony of Survival which isn’t exactly a walk in the park for the brain cells, so on this particular day I was planning on reaching states of concentration that would render me oblivious to the other goings on of the rush hour. Unfortunately this wasn’t to be.

Around Piccadilly Circus a pair of friends sat down on the seats opposite me. Now, I’m no Nosy Parker and I truly do try to remain objective to strangers I come across in daily life but these two made it extremely difficult. I’m not the biggest fan of loud personal conversations on public transport, and I’m sure I’m not alone there. I find them intrusive and irritating, not to mention indecently difficult to tune out of. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve heard some such gossip exchange about Mel and Ed’s impending divorce or Harry and Gary’s drunken argument and as much as it shouldn’t, oftentimes this makes for a welcome alternative to the iPod or book. However, the conversation going on this time was a little too unsavoury for my liking. My travelling companions were a woman, perhaps in her late twenties and an extremely camp middle aged gentleman who was somewhat flamboyantly dressed. Before I get complaints – recognising someone is gay is not discrimination. This guy was wearing an eye-poppingly tight T Shirt, had the same haircut as Luke Goss in the 80s and obviously favoured jewellery with a sado-masochistic inspiration. It’s safe enough to assume that the man was homosexual – and I only make mention of the fact so as to inform the debate that I’ve had with myself and will have later in this post. All will become clear. Anyway, I digress. In between Piccadilly - where this vocally insalubrious couple caught the bus - and Green Park I had already heard about the man’s struggle with BO – which he insisted was “unavoidable” in the heat (not sure whether or not he’d been informed of the merits of anti-perspirant), about a friend of his whose boyfriend had just left her – “serves her f*cking right for being a fat bitch” (seriously) and about his love of Dina Carroll’s work in the early 1990s (which he was listening to on a Walkman, tape style). There was a collective weariness among the other passengers on board – including myself – at the cacophony of cheesey 90s music and bitchy ranting that was by this points reaching unbearable levels of loud. If I was praying for something to interrupt the atmosphere, what followed was not exactly what I had in mind.

At the front of the bus a rather large woman was struggling to make tracks towards the back. She was carrying some shopping and a small backpack. She finally reached where I was sitting and looked like she was heading for the back seat where there were few people. As she did so, she accidentally brushed the latterly discussed gay man's head with her rucksack and that was that - all hell broke loose. The man started hurling abuse at the her almost immediately, swearing and blinding: “she didn’t even f*cking say sorry, did you see that?”, “watch where you’re going you fat b*tch” (at this point the man’s hatred for the overweight had become a running theme, which was strange as his own body left much to be desired). Anyway, the barrage of rage continued until the last stop where the man’s friend had long ago alighted (presumably mortified) and myself, large lady and gay man shuffled off to our respective homes, or at least that was what I was intending to do. Inwardly fuming at the audacity and rudeness of the guy, my heart silently went out to the woman who, admirably, had remained completely silent and full of composure throughout. Apparently though, she was also harbouring a slight amount of rage because she suddenly lunged at the man (who was happily oblivious amongst his thoughts and Dina Carroll mixtape), pushed him with what I can only describe as superhuman strength, and said “YOU F*CKING C*NT”. Now, this is a word that shouldn’t be bandied about in civilized circles I’m sure, but by the looks of all witnesses, this was indeed the time and definitely the place. Not being a shrinking violet as I’m guessing you know is obvious by now, the man recollected himself from the force of the lunge and started up another ode to this woman’s weight and gender – to spell it out: “FAT WHORE” and “FAT C*NT” weren't two of many defamations present.

Everything eventually died down and in disbelief and minor hysterics I hurried home to regale everyone I know with this torrid tale (this was, let’s face it, the most exciting piece of action the number 19 bus route has ever been the host to). Once I’d calmed down, and reduced my boyfriend to tears with my very witty (at least in my head) dramatic re-enactment of the scene I started thinking about it seriously. I suddenly wondered if the story would have been as funny had the man in question not been gay – it almost definitely would not, and I’m sure (in an optimism about London solidarity that I’m trying to keep hold of) that someone would have intervened. This led me to question why this man’s attack on a woman was any less offensive because of his sexual orientation, because of course it shouldn’t be. Gay men and feminists have always had an uneasy bond, one which is subject to tension and debate among both communities.

In the most simplistic of senses, both gay men and women are representatives of oppressed groups in society – it is due to women’s perceived inferiority that effeminate characteristics in gay men are fixated upon and form the basis of homophobia; perceived sexual submission, sensitivity and general victim-status. “Fairy”, “Queen”, “Bitch”, “Mary” – all of these words are feminine in insinuation and are used to negatively imply homosexuality in men. Both women and gay men are positioned as a challenge the patriarchal norm so where’s the solidarity? Maybe the similar subculture status inspires a cart blanche mentality in some gay men – I am going to hazard a guess that had the perpetrator of the heinous crime (!) against this man had been a heterosexual male, the scenario would have been a lot less vicious.

This all said, we need to be careful of sweeping generalizations: this is no easy issue to tie down – there is little narrative about how gay men and feminists interact, at least online. I wonder why this is. Are we to assume that the two groups see no need for each other? Someone once told me that some gay men are indifferent to women as they have no sexual use for them. Similarly as a group not immediately involved in feminist issues, gay men are perhaps on the periphery where we are concerned. I’m not sure. Surely as co-existing groups whose end goal is the same thing – liberation – feminists and gay men should be helping each other out. I can’t help feeling that the scene I witnessed was just another day in the life of that man who may or may not use his homosexuality as an excuse to perpetrate attacks on other people. I could stake my life on the fact that this man is no stranger to the taunts of others himself, and I guess that’s what makes it so hard to fathom – no one oppression is more or less wrong than another. The oppression of women will sustain the oppression of gay men as long as ideas about homosexuality and femininity are held on to – surely this is cause for collaboration, not in-fighting?