I recently met Brenna through the magic of the internet and through a mutual friend. I was looking to meet other women who are called to speak about sexual assault. I checked out her website and felt like I already knew her and we are destined to be life long friends. Her story is different than mine, and so powerful. She loves Leslie Knope and dogs and you will love her. You will find her writing and voice to be strong and mesmerizing, and deeply honest.
“Wow, you’re so beautiful,” he said, as I turned to make eye contact for the first time since beginning the intake process. I rolled my eyes internally, and said simply, “I would appreciate it if you didn’t comment on my physical appearance anymore.”
The amount of times I use that line on a weekly basis at work is astounding. I rarely get through a day without a male guest (the word we use for clients at my agency) commenting on my outfit, my hair, my eyes, or my tattoos. It gets old. Quickly.
When I first started working at Central Outreach and Advocacy Center, I didn’t know how to handle the micro aggressions and off-handed sexism I confronted on a daily basis. On one hand, our guests are experiencing poverty, homelessness, addiction, racism, mental illness, and host of other difficult things. I struggled for months with whether or not I was being a petty white girl who was prioritizing my own feelings above those of the people I was supposed to be serving. Sure, I was uncomfortable most days at work. But I still got to go home to a fully furnished apartment with food in my refrigerator and disposable income to spend on yoga classes and wine. If it brought my guests a little joy to stare at my butt as I walked by, who was I to stop them when they were struggling to survive?
It took me about a year, but I eventually came to the conclusion that it was okay and appropriate for me to ask for mutual respect. By seeing my guests as helpless individuals in need of any small moment of contentment, even at my own expense, I wasn’t helping them. I was further victimizing them. By allowing them to mistreat me I was doing both my guests and myself a disservice. However, by treating them with respect and demanding the same in return, I was taking better care of both of us. I learned to demand respect as a part of my own self-care. Tolerating micro aggressions (and worse) was leading to resentment and burn out. And by allowing my guests to say whatever they saw fit, I was not helping them remember the boundaries of a stable life. The street has its own code of ethics. Things that would never be acceptable in a workplace happen all the time on the street because everyone is merely trying to survive – think Maslow’s Hierarchy. So, if I could help empower them, meet a few basic needs, and, in addition, remind them of the social norms they would be required to meet in daily life, I was moving in the right direction.
There are still times that I feel unsafe or comments from male guests get under my skin. It particularly frustrates me when guests touch me without asking. As a survivor of sexual assault, it makes me feel anxious and unsafe when people touch me, unsolicited. Recently, a guest commented on my shoulder tattoo and then proceeded to poke it with his finger as I was trying to complete his referrals for a clothing closet. A few months ago, a guest thought I wasn’t paying attention to him while he was talking to me so he grabbed my forearm to get my attention. I know that neither of these things would’ve happened to a male case manager, and, in some ways, that’s the thing that bothers me the most. Often, it seems as though the men I interact with feel that they have the right to my body solely because of my gender. They think it’s fine for them to comment on my body, “admire” it, and touch it. Our only full-time male staff member, though, never has to tolerate any of this, despite the fact that his forearm tattoo is more often visible than the one on my shoulder.
I don’t want to seem as though I’m judging the people I serve or criticizing them. The sexism they exhibit toward me is not a consequence of their life situations. That is, I’m not trying to say that they’re uneducated or lawless. Men of all walks of life exhibit these same behaviors – men experiencing homelessness just happen to be the context where I experience it. But because of the trauma they endure during their homelessness, the harassment and sexism I endure can take some unusual shapes. About four months ago, I was working at the front desk of our agency, signing guests in and vetting their needs so they could meet with a case manager. Mid-morning, the line of people waiting died down, so I scanned the lobby to see how many people were waiting. When I looked up, I was confronted with a man sitting in the corner of the lobby who had his pants unbuttoned and was openly masturbating while staring directly at me. It took me a minute to realize what I was seeing, but once it registered, I immediately called the police. The man, knowing that I had caught him, put his pants back on and left.
The police did catch him down the street a little ways and he was in jail for about two months. As I looked back on the incident, though, I realized that this was not the first time this had happened. This man came into our agency nearly every day. He was always friendly and mostly kept to himself. He sat in the same corner every day and never really caused any problems. However, after I witnessed him with his pants off, I realized that I had seen him masturbating in our lobby before, also while staring at me. In the past, though, he had kept all of his clothes on, so it was difficult to say what exactly he was doing. Working at the front desk is a busy job, so I had never had reason or time to stop and check on him. Once he had the audacity to take his pants off, though, I realized what he had been doing all along.
This is perhaps the most jarring and traumatic sexism I’ve experienced at my job, and it’s undoubtedly influenced my daily interactions with my guests. Because I now know the extremes objectification can go to, I have even less tolerance for comments about my appearance. I also have no tolerance for nicknames like “honey” and “sweetheart” – something else I experience on a weekly basis. My reaction is usually to point to my nametag I’m always wearing and say, “You can call me by my name, which is Brenna.” I try to meet these micro aggressions with grace because I know they usually don’t come from a place of malfeasance. I make an attempt to teach my guests in the same ways that they teach me. From them, I learn about poverty, racism, mass incarceration, and why it’s not so easy to just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” So, I try to return the favor with the things I can teach them about what it’s like to be a woman. Of course, there are times when teaching is not the answer, like when I am physically unsafe. But getting angry each time I wear my collar to work and a man says “I didn’t know ladies could be pastors” isn’t going to serve me in the end.
My ministry is fighting poverty, homelessness, and racism through storytelling and advocacy. But my ministry is also fighting sexism in small ways, by teaching the men I work with that respect for women starts by not making us feel uncomfortable in what should be platonic interactions. Some days it hurts and brings up past pain, but I cannot make it better if I say nothing. So I continue to point to my nametag and insist no one comment on my body and hope for a day when I will be valued for my ministry alone.
Brenna Lakeson is a queer feminist pastor and social activist living in Atlanta, GA. Born and raised in North Carolina, she has a BA in Music from Elon University, with minors in Spanish and Latin American studies. She has an MDiv from Candler School of Theology at Emory University with particular interests in feminist theology, Hebrew Bible, and apocalyptic literature. She is provisonally commissioned as a United Methodist pastor by the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Brenna currently works at Central Outreach and Advocacy Center, serving people experiencing homelessness in downtown Atlanta. She works on a volunteer basis with Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty to help abolish the death penalty in Georgia. Outside of her social justice work, Brenna enjoys running, yoga, and petting her two cats, Seffie and Beyoncé.