Life Memories: Systemic Sexism

So this entire post comes with history. A LOT of history.  There are stories within stories here and I can’t fully explore them in a single post.  So, I’ll skip some bits here and jump straight into the pieces you need (well, I’ll try, it’s hard to unpack all the inter-tangled pieces). All the best stories are complicated.

I started playing tabletop RPGs around end-of-middle-school when my older brother wanted to try this new book GURPS.  Yes, I learned on GURPS.  It has made me a weird gamer ever since because I don’t particularly like D&D or Pathfinder… classes frustrate me.  When I was in high school I started gaming with his guy-friends (most of them in college) with a Wheel of Time game.  When my brother “disappeared” into the military, I kept going.

We met every first Saturday of the month about noon and gamed until 5-7pm, went to dinner and hung out.  So from the time I was 16/17 until about 29, I saw these guys at least once a month for hours. Some of them had known me before gaming. Some of them I ended up working at jobs with. They were family.

Sometime in college we started the weirdest, goofiest, craziest Star Wars campaign (we totally broke West End games yo!).  We probably played that campaign close to 7-8 years.  We had multiple stories and each of us ended up with 2 characters so we could run multiple plots simultaneously (I did use the word broken, right?).  It was so much fun and I was loyal – I made that Saturday my guys’ day.

Then we let a new guys join the group.  He wasn’t new-new.  He’d been on the fringes of my awareness for years  -gamers always tend to circle the same people.  We’ll call him “Ted” for this story.  So Ted had met my friends in college, hadn’t ever really gotten into gaming ’cause you know Georgia Tech is hard and family business and he had a life.  But now he wanted in, so we made room at the “table” and he built up a pair of characters (now a requirement).  Now, Ted was vegetarian (by religion) and this made our after-game dinner choices change.  Whereas BBQ and burger joints had been common – they had to get nix’ed pretty much entirely.  Whatever, I am not actually that picky an eater.

I do however have a food sensitivity.  I can’t eat peppers.  They make me rather violently ill.  Anything stronger than a jalepeano generally makes me vomit.  Much like someone lactos intolerant, you don’t want me around when I try to eat even bell peppers. So places like Mexican restaurants are -at best- risky.

Well Ted thought Mexican was the best choice for the group. Constantly. No matter how many months in a row I reminded the group that this would not work for me. And it hurt. At the time I couldn’t explain entirely why it hurt so much.  I mean, obviously Ted is an asshole who can’t think beyond his OWN needs. That was actually a pretty well acknowledged truth. You combine this with a few other sexist remarks and painful moments and this group I loved & cherished was becoming more and more difficult to convince myself to be around every month.

Then came the catalyst weekend.  It had been a fairly emotionally charged game and I had felt like every time I spoke up, my character’s ideas (ie mine) were being shot down.  I was emotionally tired. The dinner conversation came up and immediately Ted suggested Mexican. I brought up my allergy and suggested Olive Garden (pasta is perfectly safe for a vegetarian). He said he didn’t want pasta or salad. And suggested a different Mexican place.

I wish I could say I had tossed out BBQ and when Ted complained I lashed into him (as I fully believe he deserved) that if he couldn’t respect my allergy I didn’t have to respect his choice.  I didn’t.  I was tired and after a little more round-robin I caved.

I ordered as carefully as I could, but it was a Saturday night. I’m sure the restaurant had pans of pepper-dishes next to pans of non-peppery dishes and cross-contamination is a thing.  I spent half the night in my bathroom wishing I had just skipped dinner entirely.  I spent half the night wishing I never would have to see Ted again. I spent days emotionally recovering from…. I couldn’t even say what.

It took me longer than it should have, but I wrote an email to the defacto “leader” (the GM) of the group.  I explained I was frustrated and hurt.  It wasn’t perfect – hell, I was a bit emotional – but I was blunt and said “I won’t put myself into a situation again where I will be sick. ”

I walked away from the game. I walked away feeling like “the bad guy.”  I walked away feeling guilty because I know I hurt my friend’s feelings when I explained this truth: my friends didn’t stand up to Ted and left me to stand against him alone. Over and over. Their silence; their complicity in his sexism…. hurt.

The food thing was actually a pretty minor confrontation between myself and Ted. We had already had one where he literally had told me to sit down, shut up, and let “the men” play their game.  And I mean that literally as literally not figuratively.  And that time one of the guys did stand up to Ted and tell him he was in the wrong. But they never noticed how many times he talked over me. How many times he dismissed my ideas.  The tiny pricks over and over and again and again. Subtle and constant but each one individually small enough to dismiss.

But this is systemic sexism I wanted to get to in this post:

When I (the sole woman of the group) brought up a medical concern it was treated as equally valid as a life choice (of a man) when it came to food decisions.

Say that to yourself three times.  His choice (albeit religious) was given equality with my getting violently ill.  Granted, my illness isn’t something flashy like peanuts or fish cause. Still… mull this over in your mind.

And the guys didn’t fully understand.  More than one used the word “sensitive” when they asked and I explained that it was “him or me” in the group. Not even my brother (who totally supported my decision – had been listening to me for months complain as we carpooled) entirely understood it. Oh, he understood it in theory and he did/does support it – but he didn’t understand why it hurt as much as it did. I doubt he’s ever experienced it, and never over and over and over.

And yet, every woman I’ve told this to nods and shares her “Ted” experience.  That hashtag about women telling their stories…. yeah, this is one of mine.

This still hurts.  It’s been more than 2 years and I have teared up writing about this.  I have stopped twice, walked away, and came back to writing; because it still is painful to remember this decision to walk away from a group of 15 years.  Friends who I might talk to at a Christmas party or the like now, but I don’t get to see every month.

I have tried to hang out with them once; they planned a random board-game day.  And after about 2 hours of dealing with underhanded barbs from Ted (seriously, the man does not even realize how much he (A) interrupts me and (B) constantly puts down women in general) I was sick of it. Ted makes my skin crawl with the heeby-jeebies and I barely trust him not to cross the line when other men are around to hold him in check. It’s exhausting (and far from “fun”) to be in that kind of tension for very long.

Now, when they plan board game days I just ignore the email chain. Well, I just don’t respond. I always read them.