I was riding the bus in Maryland along with a friend of mine today. He was wearing a colorful knit kippah, swan earrings, a t-shirt and Arabian-style flowing pants with crystal beading. I was wearing a cowboy hat studded with white flowers, a Batman t-shirt and a black skirt.
A man at the back of the bus looked at us and said, "Why are you dressed like that?"
I looked down at my clothes, confused about what was upsetting the man. Did he dislike Batman? Or was my cowboy hat putting him off?
"Why are you dressed like that?" he repeated. "You look disgusting. A man should dress like a man. I don't want to see that."
"Close your eyes, then" my friend sang out, unfazed. I was still processing what was happening, trying to figure out why this person was being so hateful.
The man then got up and actually moved so as not to look at us. Many thoughts ran through my mind. Mostly, I wanted to tell the man off. I wanted to say that the way he was behaving was vulgar, crude and offensive. Also, that it's a crime to verbally harass others. But I knew that doing that would mean the man would just continue to insult us, so I felt it was best to let it go. Instead, I turned to my friend.
"Does this happen a lot?" I asked.
He said that yeah, it happened reasonably often. I was shocked.
I've heard of harassment before. I've had people whistle or shout at me and once someone even propositioned me. But it's never felt like an attack against me as a person, against my very personhood. It's never been specific to me as a person- just me as a woman, and for some reason, that feels different.
It really bothered me that the bus, which for me is a fun place where bus drivers are kind and sweet to me and random men are usually chivalrous, has the potential to be scary for my friend. I don't think that should happen. And I'm an Orthodox Jew who believes that God is displeased when people act on their homosexuality or when men dress in women's clothes. But in the end of the day, that isn't a visceral emotional response for me. It's not about me hating someone else. Instead, it's about me feeling that God would desire something else. But in the end of the day, I love the person, whether or not they're doing what I believe God wants them to do. I believe that God loves all His creations, too, and even if they veer from the path that He wants them on, he doesn't want them to be hated.
It reminded me of the Gemara where R' Meir says to Beruriah that he wishes all sinners would die. Beruria replies that instead, he ought to pray that they repent. It's the difference between believing that people have irrevocably stained souls and believing that they are more than just one part of themselves. My friend's a good person and he should be able to ride the bus in peace.
I'm still not sure about what I should have done differently. I don't know if I should have gotten up and told off the man who was saying these cruel things. But I just feel like something really bad happened, that I was a witness to it, and that it shouldn't happen. And that we should make sure to do what we can so it doesn't continue to happen.