It was the summer of 1992. I was nineteen years old, and had finished my first year of college. I was living near Ann Arbor, Michigan, staying with a friend and his family for the summer between school years.
Ann Arbor is a college town, so even in summer there was stuff to do. But we were under twenty-one, and broke (I had the worst job I ever had, that summer, or close to it, working for a moving company that required I wake up and call in at 7am to see if they had work for me that day; most days, they didn’t). But my friend was really into dancing — I liked it, too — so we would, once every week or two, splurge and pay the cover at a dance club in town. I want to say it was called Tangerine, or something like that.
The place was alright, as small-town dance clubs go. Not that I was particularly an aficionado. But I liked dancing, and I liked the at least notional chance of meeting women, so I was happy enough to go those nights we could scrape together the five bucks each the place cost.
Then, one night, I had to take a shit.
I didn’t want to do it there. The bathrooms were not the most sanitary and, worse, the stall doors had no locks. But as time passed and the pressure mounted, what I did and didn’t want mattered less and less. I couldn’t even leave the club to go find a more suitable spot, because I’d have had to pay cover again, and I had no money for that.
So I did what I had to do. What was the worst thing that could happen?
It’s a measure of my privilege and cluelessness that I thought the worst thing that could happen was somebody accidentally walking in on me and us both being grossed out and embarassed. I was actively worried it might happen. Vigilant, even, insofar as a person can be in such circumstances.
The man who walked in on me did not do so by accident. Even if the trenchcoat hadn’t given it away, the way he reached for my crotch while I panicked and tried to shut the door on him was a crystal clear sign what his intent was.
I was freaked out. In shock. There wasn’t a single part of me that knew what to do with the adrenaline racing through my bloodstream. My hands shook as I wiped myself clean and pulled my pants back up.
I didn’t know what to do. Should I kick his ass? Tell security? Cry like a little girl? I wanted to do all those things, but I was so gobsmacked I only had the willpower to stop myself doing the third. I remember walking back out to the dance floor, walking right by the guy, who stood out in the crowd, what with the trenchcoat in summer and the overlarge glasses and the creepy, creepy vibe he put out.
I could have confronted him, but I didn’t. I was too shaken. I’d never had my agency taken away like that. Not even when I’d got arrested at a protest the year before. To this fucking creepster, I wasn’t anything but what was between my legs. I didn’t know how to deal.
So I tamped that shit down, and got on with things. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever told anyone about this. Like so much else that’s hurt me, I shoved it down deep into a dark place and hoped it would die and not fester and poison me. Thanks, toxic masculinity.
* * *
It wasn’t until many, many years later I realized the guy wasn’t trying to rape or even molest me. He was just trying to hook up.
My whole childhood, I’d seen the phone numbers scrawled in men’s rooms. The condom machines in gas station bathrooms. For a good time, call… My brain didn’t know what to do with the information. I figured it must just be people playing practical jokes on each other. ‘Lol, bro, I wrote your number in the bathroom and told people how gay you are.’ Even after the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, I hadn’t realized about the hookup culture that pervaded in the era of the love which dared not speak its name.
To trenchcoat guy, I was giving the signs that I was like him, and looking for a hookup. I can imagine it now, him seeing me sitting, shorts around my ankles. It was probably a thing that happened there, the way it did in lots of public bathrooms. Why else had they taken the locks off the doors? Trenchcoat guy was probably as surprised as I was when I was all like ‘Noooo!’ and shut the door on him. Looking back, I’m half-surprised he didn’t bail, thinking I was gonna get him busted. Ann Arbor might have been pretty liberal, then and now, but back in the early ’90s even liberal places were pretty homophobic.
* * *
I’m not going to lie. It was traumatizing to have another man try and grab my penis while I was in such a vulnerable position. I could say nothing prepared me for it, but that’s not entirely true. I mean, I knew sometimes closeted gay men hooked up in public bathrooms, and though that was the first time that happened to me, it wasn’t the last. But up to that point, it hadn’t ever touched me, or occurred to me that it might. The same toxic culture that pushed these desperate souls to the margins to find what fulfillment they could kept me insulated from that reality. When that reality did finally intrude, I had no idea what to do about it, aside from feeling shame another man had seen me as a sexual object and panicking that anyone would find out about it, and then shoving the whole thing down the memory hole with the rest of the traumas and heartbreak I’d shoved down there.
I shoved it down pretty deep, too. I mean, I still had it in me to ask why women who were assaulted didn’t fight back, didn’t tell anyone. Like if I put two and two together, and sympathized with the shock that takes over a person when that happens instead of the typical Dunning-Kruger Monday morning quarterbacking, then people might know that once upon a time, some man had made me feel powerless and traumatized, and how was I supposed to be powerful and masculine and dominant after that?
The masculinity I absorbed as a child would have said I could restore my honor and power by kicking trenchcoat guy’s ass. The masculinity I’m learning to cultivate now realizes how the whole thing came to happen, and forgives him, and myself.