After reading the recent post about the horrific harassment a former Ottawa resident experienced while riding the train in San Francisco, I was inspired to share a story of my own harassment on a TTC subway. At the time I was angry and felt violated. I tried not to give my harassers any more power and only mentioned the incident to my boyfriend and close friend when I returned home. I now realize that speaking up about these incidents is the only way to show others that they’re not alone when harassment happens and that it is important we have each other’s backs, no matter what. Here’s my story:
It was a hot and humid Sunday afternoon in June. I was racing against the clock to make it from my small hometown to Toronto Union Station before enduring the 4.5 hour train ride back to Ottawa. Getting me as far as he could, my boyfriend dropped me off at Yorkdale where I would take the subway the rest of the way. Having lived in Toronto for three years while completing my degree at York, the subway, and specifically the Yonge-University-Spadina line, was comfortable for me.
On this Sunday the subway was quiet but not empty. I chose a window seat with my bag piled in my lap, sunglasses on, and earbuds in – my classic ‘do not disturb’ look while riding transit. It was close to 40 degrees that day so I was wearing jeans and a tank top; my half-sleeve of tattoos clear on display. At the next station, Lawrence West, three clearly intoxicated men stormed on to the train, first at the back of the car then loudly barging their way to the front where I was seated. Even though there were plenty of empty seats, they all remained standing in front of the door across from me.
“Hey!! Nice tattoos!” The drunk ring leader yelled at me. I pretended not to notice. This wasn’t the first time a random stranger “complimented” me on my tattoos and usually a polite half-smile of acknowledgment was enough to subdue their curiosity. Apparently it wasn’t this time and he felt entitled to walk over and inspect me as he got in for a closer look. I continued to look away and pretend I couldn’t notice him. “HEY!! “How many tattoos do you have??” the obnoxious ring leader yelled. I remained stone-faced and kept looking straight ahead. He got in my line of vision and yelled it again. “A few” I mumbled in the angriest tone I could muster. “Oh, yeah? Where? Where are all your tattoos??” The same dude looked back at his friends and they all laughed hysterically.
I remember the ride between the next few stops feeling like an eternity. More people got on the train but no one said anything. I remember glancing across the aisle and catching the eye of an older man sitting facing me, but he never interfered. The stops are close to almost 5 minutes apart but every second I couldn’t look out the window or drone out their drunk leers made me feel worse. “IS THAT THE QUEEN OF HEARTS?!” the same asshole yelled at me after a few minutes. He was staring at my traditional style nurse on my inner-bicep. His friends burst out laughing. “What?? IS THAT THE QUEEN OF HEARTS?!” When the train finally stopped at Dupont the drunk assholes high-fived and ran out. Once I saw them get off I immediately looked down and avoided any further eye contact as the train pulled away.
Since I was still rushing to make my train, I put those assholes out of my mind but texted my boyfriend about it when I got home. I was angry and I felt violated. I didn’t want to ‘dwell’ on it so I put it out of my mind. I thought this was the best thing to do. But then, thinking back, I – and my girlfriends – experienced a lot of harassment on that TTC line. There was the time when a drunk man sat down beside me, tried to force me to drink some of his whiskey then sat across from me and proceeded to yell at me for attention. The countless stares from men that made me so uncomfortable I, several times, thought about getting off at a different stop in case they followed me. The night my friend was blocked from exiting a subway by three dudes staring at her, standing in front of the door. And, most famously to me, the morning when, on a jam-packed subway some dude put his hands on my friend’s ass and she turned around and punched him in the nose, the women around her cheering.
Reading about the horrific harassment that happened to Nadine assured me that I was not alone when I was harassed. How many other women are currently holding in these stories, trying not to let it bother them? As the same friend who slugged that man on the subway recently told me, “I think it’s very unnerving to be a woman alone on any form of public transportation. It’s partly your own mind scaring you, but I think it’s also the experience of being a woman and having to continually defend your actions, dress, thoughts, words etc.”
These incidents of harassment don’t just happen on transit in big cities like Toronto, San Francisco, and Ottawa. They can happen at any time, anywhere, and to anyone. If you notice someone being harassed, try to say something. It’s not always easy to speak up, especially when you’re by yourself, but it is important that we try. It’s one thing to wait for a man to interfere but as women we need to stand up for each other. If we don’t, we can end up feeling more alone, potentially afraid to share these stories with others, inadvertently continuing to let pathetic harassers get away with it. So let’s have each other’s backs, in any way we can.