It Happens Here: Street Harassment and Violence in the “Southern Part of Heaven”

As members of the senior class have begun to mentally prepare for that fateful day in May, many of us have started waxing poetic about the Chapel Hill icons we love the most. For many, one of these crown jewels of the “Southern Part of Heaven” is Franklin Street, site of Halloween parades, frequent lunch dates, and post-Duke victory celebrations.

However, as a senior graduating next semester, I will always remember Franklin Street as the place where my life was threatened because of my gender expression.

The theme of the party I attended the night of the incident was “Sea Beings Gathering”—the hostess has an obsession with all things ocean-related—and Ursula, the fabulous sea witch villainess of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, inspired my ensemble for the evening. I had spent hours with a couple of friends perfecting my look for the night, and I looked absolutely stunning in my lavender wig, black dress, high heels, and iconic shell necklace. The supreme achievement of my look was my makeup, painted expertly by my friend, who sculpted my face in swirling purple and blue eye shadow, deep violet lips, and faux glittery scales that gave me a Jessica Rabbit-from-Atlantis vibe. I looked hot, y’all.

However, the warm and loving reception I received from the attendees of the party clashed strikingly with what happened the minute I took a high-heeled step onto Franklin Street to head back to my apartment. While I was bracing myself to experience some street harassment based on how I presented my gender that night, I was not expecting the sheer amount of violent language and harassment that would follow me home.

Drunken men jeered at me and told me how ugly or pretty I looked on nearly every block. Several of the men lurched forward and made attempts to reach out and touch my dress, my hair, and my chest, no doubt in an attempt to see how “real” I was or to show off for their friends. Midway through the walk we passed by several Chapel Hill officers, no doubt stationed there to maintain the “safety” of the space, who met my pleading glance for help with a cold look and level of indifference that spoke volumes:

We are not here to protect and serve people like you. You deserve whatever happens to you tonight because of how you look/dress/walk/speak. You should be ashamed of yourself.

The night culminated blocks away from my apartment when a man driving along West Franklin slowed his car down, pushed his head out of the window, and yelled at me asking if I “wanted to get killed tonight.” Before I had the chance to look in his direction his car sped up and zoomed around the corner. I never saw him again.

By the time I arrived home I was in shock at what had just happened, and the following morning I had to text the friend I had been walking with just to confirm that I hadn’t imagined the harassment, the disdain from police, the death threats hurled from a car.  And then I thought to myself—what does it say about the toxic messages I’ve internalized that my first reaction to this violence was to doubt my own experience of it?

While I do not identify as a trans woman (I identify as gender nonconforming/gender fluid), I believe that the harassment and violence I faced on Franklin Street that night were deeply rooted in transmisogyny, defined by Laura Kacere as “the negative attitudes, expressed through cultural hate, individual and state violence, and discrimination directed toward trans women and trans people on the feminine end of the gender spectrum.” Indeed, I’ve walked down that same stretch of Franklin on countless late-night treks from the library in masculine-presenting attire and have never experienced threats to my safety or well-being.

I refuse to doubt my own experiences, nor will I doubt the experiences of transmisogynist, sexist, heterosexist, and racist harassment others have shared about their time on Franklin Street. We are not making it up, we are not “crazy,” and we do not deserve to feel unsafe or threatened for the “crime” of being who we are. We must demand dignity, respect, and safety in public spaces for our community members and ourselves, and we must challenge the social systems of racism, sexism, transmisogyny, and heterosexism that perpetuate this violence.

It’s ironic that in a city and university culture that prides itself on its liberal commitment to diversity and social justice, people experience racial profiling, sexist discrimination, homelessness, street harassment, and other injustices on Franklin Street on a daily basis. We cannot allow our nostalgic dreams of a Chapel Hill that never has been a “Part of Heaven” for every Tar Heel to cloud our critical thinking. Like it or not, oppressive structures are embedded in the very bricks and mortar of our campus—our university and surrounding town were built by people who were enslaved. Rather than fixating on our romanticized vision of our past and present, let’s focus instead on what Chapel Hill can be if we commit to challenging systems of oppression here in our conversations, our campus and city policies, and, yes, even our time spent on Franklin Street.

 

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