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In This Place

We Must All Feel Safe in This Life

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Liz Lerner

I write a regular column for The Independent, a weekly newspaper for the Outer Cape. Writing this column can be an educational and, at times, humbling experience. There is something sacred in this process, to tell the whole truth as I see it, and to get it right. In a recent effort I described the freedom I felt to hitchhike in the bygone days of fifty years ago and the different attitude that exists today. It did occur to me as I worked through the piece that I was writing from a position of privilege, that a woman or a person of color never had that easy feeling that I was invoking, that freedom I was extolling. But in the excitement of making my general point about individual and societal change, I lost that perspective.

Since then I heard from a number of female readers who set me right on this point. Rightly so. It is not that what I wrote was not true—it was, as far as it went. But I was writing for less than half the population.

The disparity in the life experience between women and men is enormous and living on the Cape, sometimes described as a “bubble” of liberalism, does not negate this disparity. The truth every woman knows is this: a man generally walks through his world without fear of rape or sexual assault, without the ever-present possibility of assessment, of objectification, of the constant evaluating male gaze. Is a woman born with this knowledge, or is it reluctantly absorbed around puberty?

Back in New Jersey, years ago, my younger daughter and I had a Sunday morning ritual, to go pick up fresh bagels and lox for a leisurely family repast. Our favorite store was staffed by a group of friendly young men. As time went by, parking considerations caused me to wait in the car and send her in alone to pick up the goods. I will never forget the day she returned to the car with a paper bag and a stony look on her face. What’s the matter, I asked.

“I don’t like the way they look at me,” she replied. She was probably 12 or 13.

I have recently begun to give beach walks at low tide to tourists. A few days ago I held up a slipper shell, a common one-shelled organism. Often these shells are found in stacks, growing one on top of another. I explained to the group that the larger shells on bottom were females, and the smaller shells on top were male. If the male is removed, the next animal down turns from female to male. This is called “sequential hermaphroditism” and is common among many species of clams and shrimp. I thought out loud that if people experienced this phenomenon then we would each know what it is like to be female and to be male—the realities of both genders. The innocent children in the group thought that was funny.

I have often wondered about my friends in drag and whether they are any closer to an understanding of sex roles, or are simply flirting with the blur. I suppose trans people would do better.

As to the different experience a person of color might have, I am absolutely blind. I think I remember hearing Barack Obama mention the difficulty of hailing a cab as a Black man in Manhattan. I can’t imagine him hitchhiking. Of course even “driving while Black” is dangerous.

Sexism still taints our world, and it is incumbent on men, especially, to confront it. To change it. Racism, too, must be confronted, and the first confrontation must be with ourselves.

Simply put, we must all feel safe in this life. Let’s work on that.