When I showed up in drag at the Las Vegas biennial meeting of the Nurse Alliance of the International Union (SEIU), I wasn’t sure how my colleagues would respond. The theme this year was Nurse Leadership for Healthcare Quality and Justice, and the conference kicked off with dinner and a viewing of the first 2017 Democratic debate. Will my dress and make-up be perceived as a distraction from the serious struggles for immigrants, low wage workers, and the non-White marginalized? It was going through my mind as I walked to dinner from my hotel room.
I realized that going around in drag is consciousness raising; most girls and women that I know experience male aggression every day and in every situation no matter what clothes they are wearing
One nurse grabbed me and said “I need to talk to you. Privately.” She leveled her gaze and said: “I WANT your earrings.” Not long after, another, formidable and serious-looking nurse approached and said: “On behalf of Rhode Island, I have to tell you I LOVE what you’re doing.”
After dinner, dancing and karaoke with the Nurse Alliance, I walked around the casino in my party clothes. A loud group of tall, drunk, white male strangers approached me while pointing and laughing at me. One called out “give me a hug” and I began to walk a little faster and avoided making eye contact. He intercepted me, however, and pinned me against the wall while grinning and said “Oh, no man, I’m gonna give you a hug” as he wrapped a muscular arm around my neck. Though I wasn’t hurt, I felt humiliated and angry that these men felt entitled to assault me. I wondered if it was the radical feminist logo on my shirt, but realized it was simply because I was a man wearing a skirt and a bright red wig.
I didn’t feel very good about myself when I woke up the next morning. I felt embarrassed that I had done nothing to challenge the assailants or report the event afterwards. I felt stupid for walking around in drag. I felt bad about feeling bad— after all, I wasn’t hurt. Mainly, I realized that going around in drag is consciousness raising: most girls and women that I know experience male aggression every day and in every situation no matter what they wear.
Being a White nurse and a man means I can get attention whether I’m wearing a wig, a uniform, or suit. Surprisingly, I became tearful. Not because I felt ashamed, but because I felt waves of empathy and love coming from hundreds of Union nurses, the majority of whom were women and many non-White.
There was an open mike on the last day of the conference. I shared my experience with the intrusive men that had transpired the night before, and my belief that sexism and rape culture are a major impediment to healthcare quality and justice. Nurses suffer a disproportionate amount of violence in the workplace, and I am proud that the Nurse Alliance is tackling this problem because effective patient care is impossible if we don’t feel safe.
I spoke out, but I had difficulty looking around the room because I didn’t want people to pity me. I also know that being a White nurse and a man means I can get attention whether I’m wearing a wig, a uniform, or suit. Surprisingly, I became tearful. Not because I felt ashamed, but because I felt waves of empathy and love coming from hundreds of Union nurses, the majority of whom were women and many non-White. I was approached by several nurses after I spoke who wanted to make sure I was okay and to let me know that what happened was not okay. My colleagues wanted to be sure that I didn’t feel abandoned. Not one asked me what I was wearing or if I had been drinking. There was no suggestion that I was “asking for it” or in some other way to blame for the assault.
As I returned to my seat from the microphone, I was grateful to sit next to a man. As a union organizer and nurse, he thanked me for speaking up and went on to say he is a father of two boys and he is committed to educating them to not belittle others. The behavior of bullies is entitlement, he said. Without asking, he hugged me but it was clearly an embrace of solidarity, not pity or condescension.