Everything about Michael Bloomberg’s candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nominee makes me furious, but one moment during last night’s debate, in particular, really set me off. In response to Elizabeth Warren’s story of pregnancy discrimination, the former New York City mayor said: “If she was a teacher in New York City she never would have had that problem. We treated our teachers the right way, and the unions will tell you exactly that.”
Actually, Michael Bloomberg, when I was a New York City teacher, you didn’t treat me “the right way.”
By now, #MyBloombergStory is infamous: Ten years ago, as New York City mayor, Bloomberg publicly called for my removal from my job as a public school teacher after I’d been outed as a former sex worker. Though I’d been describing my personal journey in op-eds demanding that sex workers’ rights be acknowledged — like the one I’d published on the Huffington Post, “Thoughts From a Former Craigslist Call Girl”— I wasn’t asking to be turned into tabloid fodder, nor was I in any way asking for the loss of my teaching career.
And yet that’s exactly what happened: A reporter from the New York Post connected my byline to another story I’d published some months earlier, in which I disclosed my new occupation. In response to the Post‘s salacious cover story: “Bronx Teacher Admits: I’m an Ex-Hooker,” Bloomberg yanked me from the classroom and called for the city to take legal action against me, as if my very existence was a crime.
While a good amount of people were offended by the fact that a former sex worker had become a “well-liked” elementary school teacher, others — including Bloomberg, it seems — appeared equally offended by my decision to speak out. One New York Daily News headline, for example, read “Bronx art teacher Melissa Petro blabs about exploits as stripper, hooker at open-mic events.” The Post called me an “Idiot Prosti-Teacher” and captioned another photo, “Attention whore.” Privately, even friends asked me what I was thinking.
Not only do some people not understand why a woman would want to talk about something we ought to feel ashamed of, but it seems Michael Bloomberg doesn’t believe that people ought to have the right to. As a powerful billionaire, he put himself in the position of controlling what his former employers’ share by compelling them to sign nondisclosure agreements, even as he admits making sexually suggestive remarks, saying, “that’s the way I grew up.” He feels entitled to have a past, to apologize for decisions he’s made and move on, even to the highest office in the country. Yet for others, he believes their past should be something that not only haunts them, but prevents them from moving forward with their lives.
To be sure — when we are on the receiving end of such denigration— there are good reasons besides nondisclosure agreements to keep our stories to ourselves. According to research on concealable stigmatized identities — think sex workers, drug users, people who’ve had abortions, as well as victims of rape, sexual harassment, and abuse — dealing with stigma and discrimination can have a profoundly negative impact on our health.
Negative disclosure reactions, like what I suffered through, can be traumatic, but the same research finds that positive experiences with disclosure can have the opposite effect. Not only do positive, supportive, and accepting reactions help us reconcile ourselves with the stigmatized identity, but by speaking up, we learn we’re not alone. In sharing our stories, we experience some restitution by reconnecting to our community, it is a vital step in healing. And sometimes, however rarely, we win something of a victory, particularly when powerful people ally themselves alongside us even in the face of great odds (or, in this case, deep pockets).
Enter Elizabeth Warren, who has showed up to the last two democratic debates fighting mad. “This is personal for me,” Warren began last night in response to Bloomberg’s dismissive claim that her campaign platform to defend women was a mere “sideshow.”
Warren went on to tell her own story of pregnancy discrimination, then condemned Bloomberg with his own words: “At least my boss didn’t tell me to kill it,” making reference to something Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one employee when he learned that she was pregnant. (Bloomberg has denied the allegation under oath and entered a confidential settlement with the woman.) It was a powerful second act to her masterful takedown at last Wednesday’s debates. Standing up for the women she describes as “muzzled,” Warren compelled Bloombert to revise his company’s policy on NDAs, as well as lift the nondisclosure agreements of three women. But as Warren put it last night, that’s not enough: “If he says there is nothing to hide here, then sign a blanket release and let those women speak out so that they can tell their stories the way I can tell my story.”
Watching Bloomberg rise in the polls these past weeks has made my heart sink, and so seeing Warren eviscerate the white male billionaire on national television once and then again, has been well, truly delightful. In my mind, Warren ranks alongside Stormy Daniels and Monica Lewinsky, two women who were shamed for their sexuality that went on to become outspoken advocates. These women refuse to apologize or shrink from their experiences. Instead, they hold up a mirror and make clear that the shame men cast on women is their own, not ours.
Today, as a consequence of telling my story and in spite of the way I was treated, I am entirely comfortable with who I am. In addition to being a freelance writer, wife and mother of two, I will always be a former sex worker. Instead of feeling at odds with that identity, I’m at peace. I’m an honest person, and no one can disparage my character. Can Mayor Bloomberg say the same?