Jay and Steve were two white, late twenty-, early thirty-something Canadians with scraggly beards that I picked up toward the Friday afternoon rush hour in Newport Beach, California, after they had spent the day drinking cheap beer at a local Irish pub. They were both very friendly and did not hesitate to initiate conversation. In fact, I barely had a chance to push the “Pick up Steve” button on my phone before Jay, who took the front passenger seat, piped in and asked me how my day was going.
“Good,” I said, “It’s been profitable. On my second shift now after working the morning rush hour. How about you guys?”
They were both in good spirits, saying how grateful they were to be away from the cold blast of the Nor’easter that was leaving behind a trail of snow in Toronto.
“Oh, I’ve been to Toronto,” I said, “Great city.” I told them that I am from the East Coast–Baltimore–and that I was at one time conditioned to the cold.
“Yeah, it’s great ote here,” Jay said, his Canadian accent coming through, “So beautiful. But let me ask you, Rob. Is it us or are the girls’ boobs bigger out here?”
I didn’t know how to answer.
“I have never noticed,” I said through an awkward smirk.
“Rob,” Jay responded, “You’ve been out here for how many years?”
“Nine,” I said.
“And you’ve never noticed the size of women’s breasts?”
Feeling a bit cornered by the question and at a loss for a dishonest excuse I said straightforwardly, “No. If I’ve noticed anything it’s of the other sex.” Then, turning toward Jay, I added, “I’m gay.”
There was an awkward pause. “But still,” Jay said somewhat defensively, perhaps covering up his embarrassment, “Even as a gay man you can still notice women’s breasts.”
“True,” I said, “But given my inclinations, I am not inclined to look. Which is why I mentioned my sexual orientation.” Then, so as not to make Jay feel uncomfortable, if he did at all, I conceded to the heteronormative banter as much as I could allow for myself, “But I will say that I find the women very beautiful out here.”
“Yes. There must be something in the water,” said Jay.
To switch the subject I turned toward the occasion for Jay and Steve’s visit. Both in construction–Steve a contractor who owns his own company, Jay a site manager–they were out here to get away from the early Toronto winter for a long weekend that included a hockey game at the Anaheim Honda Center between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Anaheim Ducks, as well as a Ram’s game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
They asked me about what I do and I told them that I am a former community college teacher, English, and that I’m now driving full-time for Lyft with the hopes of getting into print journalism up North, in Humboldt County, California, to cover topics on culture and politics. This lead into a discussion of, among other things–including Canada’s geography; the fact that Canada exports oil to the United States; and the oil-rich history of Huntington Beach–gun violence in America. The recent mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, was key in our minds.
In Canada, assault weapons are illegal. Individuals may own hunting rifles, but everything else is off limits. Of course there is a market for illegal guns, but for the most part people follow the law. The result: minimal gun violence, especially compared to the United States, where every month there seems to be a new episode of a “lone wolf” (read isolated, mentally unstable white man) letting loose on a crowd of civilians. Jay and Steve thought it absurd that people in this country get so up-at-arms about their right to own semi-automatic assault rifles. I agreed, thinking of how easy it is to obtain such a weapon and of the popular reasons for owning these guns, chief among them being self-defense. I have yet to hear of a mass shooting prevented by someone else’s semi-automatic. Moreover, I voiced my frustration that these incidents are not treated as terrorist attacks by the officials responsible for reporting them. Instead, as Jay and Steve noted also, we use the term “terrorism” or “terrorist” only in reference to typically brown bodies of the Muslim religious persuasion, suggesting an inherent, if unpsoken, racism in the way we go about framing, or refusing to frame, events like the one that happened in Thousand Oaks.
We talked a bit more about politics. When I asked what they thought of their Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Jay chimed in, saying he does not feel that he is well-equipped for the job. “He was a high school teacher,” Jay said, pointing to his lack of experience in politics. Jay feels that he has a good reputation only because of his charisma, his good looks, and how he compares to Trump. “Trump says a lot of terrible stuff, but at least he is a successful businessman,” Jay added.
Though I did not voice my disagreement as I just wanted to listen, I felt it. For one, what’s wrong with an educator getting involved in politics? Second of all, Trump has no experience in politics, either. Thirdly, Trump has an ambiguous track record in business. And finally, he is more than a blow-hard spouting divisive rhetoric. He is dangerous. And his words, as ideological devices, have the power to shape public policy: through law and those he appoints to public office. Consider his draconian separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border; his anti-Muslim, anti-refugee travel ban; his roll backs on environmental protections and his appointment of Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and Texas ex-governor Rick Perry to the role of Secretary of Energy; his possible ties to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement; his tax plan which disproportionately benefits the wealthy; his team’s early proposals to cut funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities; his scandalous appointment of Matt Whitaker, outspoken critic of the Mueller probe into Russian election meddling, to the formerly Jeff Sessions-helmed Department of Justice; his support of dictator Duterte’s brutal anti-drug campaign in the Philippines; his refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia over the murder of Washington Post journalist and dissident Jamal Kashoggi in October; his general orientation toward authoritarianism; and a whole host of other ethically, morally, and politically questionable habits and practices that smack of various “isms”–all of which have the potential to become the rule of law.
A fiscal conservative who doesn’t trust any politicians, Jay lamented Canada’s national debt, which is currently nearing the $1 trillion mark in USD. For a country of 37 million people to have debt that exceeds that of the State of California, at $4.26 billion USD for 39 million people, is outrageous. When I asked Jay what Canada is spending its money on he couldn’t answer, but he is in favor of cutting it nonetheless.
When we arrived at their hotel in Anaheim, I thanked both of them for their conversation, asking Jay his name, which I did not catch early on when he told me after having picked up him and Steve in Newport. They were both appreciative and kind, wishing me well in my writing career as I mentioned to them where they could find my blog links on the Lyft passenger app.
“It’s not everyday you get into intellectual conversations like these,” Jay said as he exited the car.
“That’s true,” I responded, smiling and grateful for the opportunity to learn more about another country (as well as my own) and the way at least one of its people tick. (Steve did not say much during the car ride as he got caught up in a phone call that buzzed in as Jay and I were talking up front.)
Looking back on it, however, I am still processing Jay’s heteronormative assumptions about me and the problematic of female objectification underlying his speech about “boobs”–a problematic in which I participated by way of my concession that the “women are beautiful out here.”
I have no doubt that Jay and Steve are good people, intelligent, well-educated, well-meaning and of no ill intent. I appreciate their openness toward me as a gay man and, clearly, I felt safe enough to admit my orientation in front of them. It was my way of protesting their unconscious presumption about the standard scripts operating in male homosocial spaces such as our Lyft ride and about me. Perhaps because I do not perform my sexual orientation according to the stereotype of the effete gay man (indeed, because I enact a gender performance that aligns with traditional notions of masculinity, I am often presumed to be heterosexual), Jay felt comfortable enough to ask that question.
Even still, despite by discomfort about being presumed something I am not, I wonder now why I did not draw our attention to the most immediate offense: the objectification of women. I could have said that that kind of talk discomforts me irrespective of my sexuality. Why did I not first stand up for women whose bodies have been under the objectifying scrutiny of the male gaze for as long as this country has been in formation?
I can only surmise that my silence is the byproduct of some social conditioning on which all three of us have been reared as (white) males. We are raised in societies that privilege this kind of discourse between men, encourage it, expect it–so that when it happens it is taken for granted as just the way men talk amongst themselves. Indeed, such “locker-room talk” is so deeply ingrained in our national psyche that it has become permissible for our publicly elected officials to use it without recompense. Even worse, it has had an insidious way of creeping into our judicial system so that it becomes common sense to dismiss a woman’s charges of sexual assault as an attack on upstanding male citizenship–the recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court a case-in-point.
By refusing to resist such talk on the basis of its slight against women who, in the context of this car ride represent the “other,” and instead taking Jay’s question as a personal slight to my minoritarian status as a gay man, I am no less guilty of objectifying women than this nation’s current president or these well-meaning straight boys from Canada who drink beer, like sports, and talk politics.
It is a good lesson in humility on my part and a call to awareness for all of us to be impeccable in our speech. For words, though seemingly innocuous, have the power to tear down as much as build up. Let us choose them wisely and always through the perspective of the outsider to our various in-groups–such as a Lyft ride shared between gender-conforming men. Otherwise, our evasions and silences–like mine on the subject of the perceived anatomical differences between women in Toronto and California or on Trump’s supposed merits as a politician–make us complicit in the oppression of the absent other.