Is There Room In #MeToo For Lesbians?


Queer women get sexually harassed and assaulted too.

It seems unnecessary to state that nowhere in the #MeToo lexicon does the word “lesbian” appear.

Yet lesbian actor and comedian Tig Notaro has alluded to having been a victim of such harassment. Notaro severed all ties with the comedian Louis C.K., who had been a producer on her series One Mississippi, in September 2016, after what was referred to as “an incident.” In August 2017, Notaro spoke to The Daily Beast and Time magazine about the longstanding rumors that Louis C.K. had sexually harassed and assaulted women comedians. Notaro was quoted as saying, “I think it’s important to take care of that, to ha dle that, because it’s serious to be assaulted. It’s serious to be harassed. It’s serious, it’s serious, it’s serious.” The urgency in Notaro’s tone should have been taken as a warning to more offenders than just Louis C.K. In November 2017, the New York Times reported that the rumors were in fact true: On the record, six women, five named, one unnamed, had accused C.K. of sexual harassment, intimidation, and assault. The day after the news broke, C.K. acknowledged that the Times story was true and issued an apology. Mere days later, the FX network fired C.K. and removed his name from all four shows he was associated with.

In early December, Notaro was asked about C.K. She said, “The positive is, the victims aren’t told they are lying anymore.” Every week, we hear new revelations about the assault and sexual harassment of women by high-placed men in entertainment, politics, and journalism.

Yet in all the revelations, the women we never heard from were lesbians. Were we expected to believe that there were no lesbians in any of these professions, at any level, and that no lesbians had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted? 
Or is the reason that we haven’t heard from lesbians on this issue far more insidious? Is it that lesbians don’t dare reveal they are being sexually abused or assaulted on the job because they fear losing those jobs? Discrimination against lesbians on the job—any job—is rampant. And under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has stipulated that lesbians are not covered by Title IX protections against such discrimination. Two cases of women who were fired from their positions for being lesbians, Jameka Evans, a hospital worker in Georgia, and Kimberly Hively, an adjunct professor in Indiana, are scheduled to be heard on appeal in 2018. Lambda Legal is hoping to take their cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Me Too movement has triggered memories for many of us about our own experiences with sexual abuse and assault at work. As a 20-something reporter, I faced daily harassment from male co-workers. It was the 1980s though, and Anita Hill had yet to make her imprint on the Zeitgeist with her bravely stated allegations against Clarence Thomas.

In many of the newsrooms where I have worked over the past 30 years, I have been the only woman reporter. In the ’80s and ’90s, I was made so aware of my femaleness, my blondeness, my perceived femmeness, the size of my breasts, and whatever I was wearing by men who had power over what assignments I was given, or not given, that I’m not even sure from the vantage point of three decades how much that abuse impacted my work. I know I was always stressed. I know one of my butch-presenting lesbian friends who worked at a sister newspaper had a nervous breakdown and had to change jobs. When women talk now about how many of their employers and editors exposed themselves or forced them to have sex, it doesn’t surprise me in the least.

The intersection of anti-lesbian discrimination and sexual harassment and assault at work is the most obvious of Venn diagrams. As long as lesbians have no legal protections, lesbians are always in any job on sufferance. Lesbians can be fired at any time, for no reason, with little to no recourse. In the cases brought by Evans and Hively, lower courts found a direct correlation between their lesbianism and discrimination under Title IX provisions, noting that they were being discriminated against on the basis of sex because if they hadn’t been lesbians, they wouldn’t have been harassed. Both women suffered sexual harassment at work for being gender-non-conforming, butch-presenting lesbians.

Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich told the Washington Post in November, “Our current sex harassment discussion is woefully class-skewed.

“Too much about actresses and not enough about hotel housekeepers.”

And, I would add, too much about heterosexual women, not enough about lesbians. Some lesbians are at the intersection of homophobic discrimination and sexual harassment because of the work they do. I spoke with several lesbians who work in construction. All have faced serious sexual harassment, discrimination, and abuse. None has dared to come forward, because each is the only woman on her crew and each has heard throughout her tenure that women just can’t do this kind of work.

In a recent study published in the journal Gender, Work and Organization, fully 88 percent of women working in construction reported having been sexually harassed and/or assaulted on the job. Women working in restaurants (who among us hasn’t worked at least temporarily as a server or in a kitchen?) and hospitals (like Evans) faced more discrimination than most, due to the gendered nature of the work. When the majority of lower-level staff are female and the upper-level staff are male, the likelihood of harassment and abuse was highest.

Women of color are most likely to be working as staff in hotels, which is one of the most dangerously isolating jobs for women. More than 90 percent of the women who cleaned rooms asserted that they had been sexually harassed and/or assaulted by guests. Of the lesbians I spoke with who did this work in Las Vegas and New York City, everyone had had a guest expose himself to her, grab her, and/or sexually assault her in some way. None felt able to go to management to report these assaults, which, I was told, are perceived as just “part of the job.” Men tipping housekeepers for service often thought that tip paid for touching the women workers.

If lesbians complain about a hostile work environment, they can find themselves perceived as the problem, not the person or persons who perpetrated the abuse. Both Evans and Hively were accused of having a bad attitude when they filed grievances. This mirrors what actresses and journalists have been told about their reports of sexual abuse. The difference is that the women in working-class or mid-level jobs are also at a distinct economic disadvantage. Losing your $8 an hour job, and having to find another one with only your bad reference in hand, can be devastating and life-altering, and can even result in homelessness.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the first openly gay person elected to Congress, is attempting to address this class and gender divide. In October 2017, Baldwin introduced the Fair Employment Protection Act, co-signed with Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-3).

Baldwin said, “Workplace harassment remains an unacceptable reality that threatens the safety and economic security of far too many [women] working to build a better future for themselves and their families.”

In a statement on her website, Baldwin noted that in 2016, “sex discrimination comprised over 30 percent of the charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under all the statutes the agency enforces, with women filing more than 83 percent of all sexual harassment charges. Studies have shown that sexual harassment of women, including unwanted touching, grabbing, and stalking, is common in industries with low-wage jobs, like restaurants and hospitality, as well as in male-dominated industries such as construction, public safety, manufacturing, farming, and the high-tech industry. Harassment in male-dominated industries operates as a barrier to women’s entry into higher-paying jobs.”

These points by Baldwin are key:

Even if women are expected to accept sexual abuse and/or assault as part of their job description, many women will find it difficult to get ahead in industries where men hold all the power. As one lesbian artist who worked as a graphic designer for a small Philadelphia firm told me, “My day starts with my shoulders being rubbed. If I’m lucky, that’s where it ends. But I have to log a certain amount of time here before I can move to the next job or my resume looks like I’m the problem—like I can’t hold a job for more than a short time.”

A bartender in a boutique hotel asserted that there was always a “see if you can touch the lesbian” aspect to her job. “They know I’m gay, so it’s a game, a test to them. If they can touch me, then maybe I’m not really gay and they can go further. It’s a constant threat, and you’re just supposed to act like it’s a joke. But you never know how far they will try to take it.”

The Me Too movement isn’t dissipating any time soon. The lid has been torn off that Pandora’s box. Women will continue to come forward, men will continue to be revealed as serial abusers. The question is, when will women who aren’t in high-profile jobs have their concerns addressed? And when, if ever, will the experiences of lesbians be heard?