Violence and queer solidarity: Before it touches you
By: Hannah Stevens
Content warning: This piece contains discussion of intimate partner violence.
There’s a myth of queer solidarity – an idea that here, in this community that values alliance and acceptance above everything, people have got your back.
But a few years ago, when I found myself on the receiving end of violence, I realised that the roots of misogyny are deeper than any solidarity.
I used to have a friend called Peter*. He loved the colour orange and fucking men. We used to eat supper together, drink Cava and talk. We had a mutual friend called Alexander, and we shared his interests in queer rights and liberal politics.
One day we watched Hitchcock’s horror The Birds. It was Peter’s favourite. I had never watched it before, but I loved the short story the film was based on, by Daphne du Maurier.
As the credits rolled, Peter turned to me. “Isn’t it great?” he asked.
I paused. The film had unsettled me. “I liked it,” I said. “Though it’s not as good as the story.” We both laughed. But then I was serious. “Do you know how awful Hitchcock was?”
Peter didn’t. So I told him. I told him how Hitchcock had stalked Tippi Hedren, the star of The Birds. I told Peter how Hitchcock had sexually assaulted her and how, when she spurned his advances, he ruined her career. Not only did Hitchcock block Universal Studios from submitting Hedren’s performance for an Oscar, but he prevented her from working with any other directors for the next two years. Her career never recovered.
“How awful,” Peter said. But there was something about the way he said it, a glaze in his eyes.
What I didn’t tell Peter was that I had started to sleep with Alexander. The three of us hung out a lot. It was okay at first: we were friends and I thought I knew him. But Alexander became increasingly controlling. Several months later, he convinced me to move in with him. His behaviour worsened. He became moody. He tracked me obsessively.
One day in the kitchen, I told him I wanted to stop. He smashed cups and plates. Then he stepped over to the knife-block, chose one with a serrated blade and held it up. He brushed my cheek with its point. It would have been easy for him to press harder, to pull it slowly across my skin.
This is what happens when some men don’t get what they want. Afterwards, I wondered how I was still alive.
When, some weeks later, I sent Peter a message to tell him about this violent incident, his response was cool. Alexander had already talked to him. Peter wanted to invite me over, he said, to get “my side of the story.”
When I arrived, the fire wasn’t lit and the room looked stark in the overhead light. I noticed the scuffs on the white walls, the flaking paint. I thought of the opening line in du Maurier’s story: “The wind changed overnight, and it was winter.”
Peter handed me a glass of water, not Cava. We sat down, and I began to speak. Peter tilted his head, furrowed his brow.
As I relayed the details of Alexander’s violence, I was acutely aware that I was a woman. It seemed important not to look over-emotional, hysterical. I noticed then, really noticed, that I was over twenty years Peter’s junior, and that unlike Alexander – the head of a uniformed service – I had no authority other than my words.
“These are strong accusations, aren’t they?” Peter said. “I always suspected you were sleeping together.”
Peter asked me when it started. He noted the crossover – how it had begun before I’d left my ex-girlfriend. He looked gravely at me. My face flushed.
As he talked, I thought of du Maurier’s protagonist, Nat Hocken – how he told his neighbour that the birds, unprovoked, had attacked him. His neighbour was awkward, disbelieving, and Nat “could see from her eyes that she thought his story was the result of a nightmare.”
Peter ushered me to the door. The evening had reached an early end.
After that, there were no more invitations to supper. My experience was too disorderly for Peter – as if my story, too, was the result of a nightmare. It didn’t fit with the way he idealised queer men, the way he idealised Alexander.
Peter and Alexander remained friends. I was – and am – angry. Angry about the lack of solidarity, and the unwillingness to acknowledge the violence and misogyny in the queer community. I’m angry about the refusal to listen to my story, to accept the fact of violence.
Though years have passed, and I no longer see Peter, I still have my copy of The Birds. It’s falling apart: the dusty pages have come loose from the spine. I think of how, when Nat Hocken first encountered the birds, their frenzied attack, his wife didn’t believe him. And when I think of Peter now, so untouched by what I told him, I think of Nat again when he says: “you had to endure something yourself before it touched you.”
Back then, I let Peter off lightly, knowing these were things he had not himself endured. But now I believe solidarity demands more than this. It begins not in shared experience, but in facing up to violence where you least want to admit to it, and – however different your experience may be – in allowing the stories you least want to hear to touch you.
* Names have been changed.
Hannah Stevens is a queer writer. She currently directs Wind&Bones, a community interest company exploring the crossing-places of creativity, writing and social justice. Originally from the UK, Hannah is currently based in Sofia, Bulgaria. You can find her at www.hannahstevenswriter.com and @stevens_han on Twitter.