*Warning: Raw post about street harassment. Thanks for letting me vent.
Earlier this week: I’m crossing the street in Brooklyn, a block from my apartment, with my husband. We’re not holding hands. We’re not touching. We’re in workout clothes. We’re heading to the gym. Some teens approach us and ask if we have a minute for their fundraiser. The teens are holding a clipboard. This interaction is a pretty common New York experience. I decline, politely, as I do with every person who is hawking candy bars, clean energy, or “human rights” on the corner. One teen scoffs at me and then his friend says something rude and loud, something like, “Those dudes are gay.”
In the scheme of street harassment, this is about as “benign” as it gets. Still, this sets me into a tizzy. I turn my head back and glare at the teens as I’m crossing the street, but I don’t speak, I don’t act. I know that acting in these situations risks a violent confrontation. I realize that the root of this type of homophobic taunting springs from some socialized crisis of masculinity. To throw verbal fuel on this fire is the equivalent of some large mammal beating his chest at his rival. I know what comes next, and I’m much too concerned about my safety to pursue or “educate” any of my harassers. A situation can escalate from words to fists in a matter of seconds. I learned this in school at a very young age. This lesson has served me far and wide–from the rural hollows of West Virginia to the big streets of New York–and has ensured that I’ve never spent a night in a hospital with my skull bashed in.
That was a graphic image. Perhaps too graphic of an image, you say. I get it, but that’s also the point. That’s an image you too might see in a moment of street harassment, the one that would come to your head if you were walking through Manhattan alone at night and a group of drunken men began to shout homophobic slurs at you. You’re fumbling with your keys, inches away from the safety of your apartment building, and these men are shouting and laughing and out of control–do you see the image now? That’s the image you might see, say, when a man is screaming violent words and threats at you or someone who looks similar to you (read: overtly and obviously gay, whatever the hell that means) on a rush-hour subway. In fact, it doesn’t matter if there are other neutral people on that subway or on the street corner. It doesn’t matter if you’re in gay, gay, gay Hell’s Kitchen or in yuppie Park Slope. Bystanders tend to be silent in moments like these. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I’ve never had one person jump to my defense in a public space, ever, when I’ve been subject to homophobic taunting.
For context, there have been periods in my life where I have been subject to some kind of homophobic taunting every single day (in high school, this is not an exaggeration). When I first moved to New York in 2008, I noticed that these kinds of taunts happened less frequently than in my youth, like maybe once every week or every two weeks (to clarify, that’s 26-52 times a year). As the years passed and laws changed, I noticed that I was being harassed less, like maybe once every month or two, and sometimes even less than that (that’s 6-12 times a year). I’m not sure if the change is truly a reflection of society’s changing attitude, or if it’s because I’m older and have toned-down my wardrobe (that’s not a joke). Regardless, I think that I have a harder time with harassment these days, because I’ve started to let my guard down.
As an adult, I know I have thicker skin than I did as a child. I can walk away from a situation like this without crying or beating my fists against my apartment wall. But that’s also part of the problem–every time this happens to me, I have to make a conscious choice whether to shout about it to my friends or to keep it inside. I tend to do the latter, because I’m tired of being perceived, if only in my own head, as the “angry and sad gay” with a chip on his shoulder. Every time something like this happens to me, I want to shout, “But I’m a happy person! I’m usually so goddamn happy! Why do you have to steal my joy!”
I am angry because I love my husband, and I know that I sometimes don’t hold his hand in public because it’s easier. And you know what that leads to? Not holding his hand as often as I’d like behind closed doors, because, well, conditioning.
Maybe you think I’m overreacting. These are only words. I’ve never been physically assaulted (in my adult life) for being gay. It’s 2016! More than 50 percent of the public is down with my marriage! (Wait, what about the other half? Why are we talking about marriage?)
But I’d ask, how would you feel, what would you do, if a stranger interrupted your day once a month to call you a faggot? What image do you see?