“This trollop is going to single handedly send Westpac to the dumps. That’s a shemale for sure.”
What you just read is a comment that’s currently online, in a property forum, about a senior female member at Westpac. I found it because I was mentioned in the same thread. It was rating ‘Australia’s hottest real estate agents’, and they’d thrown in property journalists and commentators into the mix. Just for fun, just for kicks, presumably without any thought that many of us would actually read these things. And, seemingly, without any trepidation that maybe real estate has nothing to do with how people look.
At my work desk, I opened up the thread and there it was. My photo, taken from my Twitter account or my LinkedIn or from somewhere, with my name and publication. Someone had then quoted the picture and underneath it they’d written: ‘Lipstick lesbians are always cute.’
I’ll note here — the derogatory comments were not strictly kept to women, but the men that were picked on were clearly in the minority.
Despite leaving me relatively unscathed, uncomfortable would be an understatement about how I felt. Violated would be a better word. But why? My sexual orientation isn’t something I actively broadcast, but I don’t seek to hide it, freely discussing it if the topic comes up. It’s also not the first time I’ve had the term “lipstick lesbian” chucked at me.
However, after reading the offending thread, I felt angry. What was it that had me so riled?
I puzzled over this when I got home later that night. I’ve had some seriously gutting comments in the past from readers and competitors, and I’ve taken every single one on the chin. But this was different, personal somehow. I called and detailed what was said to my Mum, and my girlfriend. They all said to me that it’s just those “idiots out there” and not to be upset by it. I completely agree. I also shared it on Facebook. “Don’t take it personally,” I was told. “Chin up”.
I’m definitely beyond taking it personally. I know these people likely gave very little thought to whether I’m actually ‘out’ to everyone, or if I’m comfortable with my own body image. And — as the forum moderator let me know when I told them this sort of material is inappropriate — I completely understand that this isn’t the worst that has been said.
“If it makes you feel any better, most people in the property industry end up getting attacked by APF members at some stage, and what was said about you was mild in comparison,” was the response I received.
It didn’t make me feel any better. It actually made me feel worse. I happen to know it’s true that this wasn’t the worst of it because a couple of the other people mentioned in the same thread emailed me about it — telling me that it happens “all the time” and “not to worry”. Which is why I think this deserves a bit more discussion than just the brief anger and subsequent phone calls with my nearest that it elicited at the time.
It’s about the entire culture we’re in where this sort of online behaviour is acceptable and unquestioned and ‘mild’ compared to what else is said. Where someone can anonymously call a Westpac senior a “shemale” and it’s seen as ok, and not transphobic or sexist. Where the appearance of women in the media, or in senior roles, is considered public property that’s okay to be commented on. Even when, and to me this is the kicker, their appearance has absolutely nothing to do with their public role.
I’ve always been aware of this underlying sexism and pressure to look good in a role that isn’t really anything to do with looking good. I can detail a number of times, both recently and in the past, where my appearance or my age has been used to demean me, or where my sexual orientation has become the subject of fascination. At an after-work event I was recently told by an industry member “You’re cute, you could be my little sister”. What does that even mean?
What does it mean when a female journalist, including many that I know, receive creepy LinkedIn messages that say something like: “I hope it’s ok, I just wanted to tell you that your picture is gorgeous”? No, actually it’s not ok.
This particular forum thread isn’t the start of my anger, but it’s a pretty good representation of what we deal with on a daily basis, and it’s a damning one. What’s also damning was my own internal dialogue about my anger to the thread. I’m proud of the thickness of my skin, and my ability to let most things either bounce off or sting briefly, but it can be hard for me to accept when something has really bothered me. In fact, it left me thinking “Am I overreacting?”
I had spilled those same words down the phone to a friend after an industry event months ago. I had been very inappropriately treated by a male member of the industry, and my main question was this same “Am I overreacting?” tripe.
No, I’m not overreacting. I am responding reasonably to unreasonable treatment. This reaction is my professional self saying that I have a hard enough job working to get the right content onto the page with the facts and angles we need, and responding to my readers without needing to think about what is being said to my face, behind my back, or online, about my appearance or sexuality. That it “happens all the time” does not make it acceptable. And it shouldn’t.