There’s a way to call your friends out for sexism without alienating them

There’s a way to call your friends out for sexism without alienating them
Image: Benjamin Di'Costa
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After Benjamin Di’Costa was forced to tell his parents that he had been sexually assaulted at age 17, and soon after told him he was gay, he was shunned by his friends and fellow church congregants in the South. A child of a pastor, he was told he was “too broken” and “too damaged” to continue working for the church in any way. Ultimately, he enrolled himself in gay conversion therapy to try to become “straight” and “unbroken.”

Today, Di’Costa is among the most-influential queer activists on social media, advocating for the rights, health, and humanity of sex workers (especially trans sex workers), LGBTQ people, and people living with HIV. Di’Costa formerly worked at Pulse Orlando, the Florida nightclub where 49 people were murdered in 2016. He is open about having also spent seven years as a sex worker (he describes himself as having been an escort), and he frequently writes about the stigma faced by people in the trade.

Di’Costa’s vulnerability about men’s experience with sexual violence, and blunt writing on behalf of gender, racial, and LGBTQ equality, are resonating for a reason. In this interview with Quartz, he discusses the importance of feminism in all-male spaces, opines why men fear emotional connections with other men, and explains why he prefers calling people “in” on their sexism, rather than calling them “out” for it.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

I think I have always been pretty in tune with gender equity in the workplace. My focus generally was on people of TGNC (Transgender, and Gender Non-Conforming) experience being able to have a seat at the table with their heterosexual counterparts. Anytime I was in a meeting space or speaking at a conference, I would survey the room to see, is this space diverse and representative of all backgrounds or just a select privileged few? If it’s not, then I am looking at ways to change that space.

I think the most important thing I’ve embraced from the movement has been to look at my interactions with people and see what may be toxic and what the impact can be. Every word I say, I scrutinize under a mental microscope to hold myself accountable.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

I absolutely do. I don’t identify as a male feminist because why does the world need to know my gender alongside my views on gender equality? I think that my feminism plays out in spaces that are typically male dominated. I am a person who is constantly evaluating and highlighting how race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, immigration status, disability status, and other identity markers intersect and affect the experiences of women.

3. What do you do on a day-to-day basis to advance gender equality?

For me it’s about being present to what’s happening in my surroundings. When I am on the road I am keeping connected to ways I can amplify the message of women’s empowerment—particularly transgender women of color. I also believe advancing gender equality can be something so simple as being silent and still, but present in solidarity.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

I think the biggest threat to men in America is the fear of meaningful connections with other men. Toxic masculinity fuels our culture and our relationships with each other. This fear is taught at a very young age, that men must be hard, independent, and emotionless in order to be desired as a male in society, which then turns into toxic behaviors, fear of loneliness, and rejection.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most
effective, and if not, what’s your biggest inhibition to doing so?

I think the best approach is a straightforward approach. Instead of calling people “out,” I am more in the practice of calling people “in.” Instead of saying “Hey, what you said was some sexist shit,” I approach my male peers with, “Hey, I heard you said ___. This is how it can come across and this why that statement is problematic.” The majority are just generally ignorant to the impact of words and will be open to learning. Some are just fueled by a toxicity that is deeply rooted, which refuses to change.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

My biggest anxiety is always coming across as too dominant, and always feeling like I forgot to ask for consent when giving a compliment to my peers. I also am anxious whenever I am in heterosexual-dominated spaces; my experiences growing up around male-identified individuals were traumatic from sexual abuse to bullying. I never feel safe being in spaces with high levels of masculine energy.

7. What do you wish your female coworkers, and women at large, knew about you?

I think younger Benji would ask for forgiveness for being that typical baby queer. I felt that I had special permissions to make comments about appearance, or that since I wasn’t “into women” that I could grab my female friend’s boob or butt ’cause it was cute. It wasn’t cute. And now I would want women to know that I am constantly evolving and learning about life as I go, and that if I do or say something that is toxic or harmful that it’s okay to call me out and hold me accountable.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by
feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

Most of the time, calling out social injustices is uncomfortable and will result in stepping on someone’s toes. I would tell these men that you have to do what aligns with your values. I’d rather someone say nothing at all then to be inauthentic in their advocacy, because if all you have are words and not actions, then it can be more harmful than not doing anything at all.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work, or
at home, what would it be? Why?

I would have shown my mom much more support. She was the sole woman in a house full of masculine (well masculine-ish) energy. I could have advocated for her more when her voice would be silenced by male-identified family members.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice
for young men today?

I think the best advice I’ve gotten was from friend, Matt McGorry. It was to LISTEN, actively listen to people when they share their experiences, those come from a valid place. A lot of times I hear other men wanting to be right but instead of trying to get the last word, sometimes it’s best to just be present and listen and learn.