The closest I ever came to being gaybashed was at a convenience store in the late 90s. I came out of the store and got into my car, and just as I started it, two teenagers appeared, one at each of my windows. My window was halfway down, and the kid on my side leaned in and started talking about the rainbow sticker on my bumper. He was saying something about “It’s ok, man, we’re like that, too…” Their demeanor said there was no chance they were a couple of gay kids looking to connect with someone. He was keeping my attention until they could make their move. I hadn’t locked my door yet, and I started thinking about whether I could make it back into the store if he yanked it open and pulled me out. I wondered whether the clerk would chase them off and call the police, or not want to get involved and let them knock me down and kick my teeth in right in front of the counter.
Not taking my eyes off the kid’s, I put the car in reverse and pealed out before he could see what I was doing. I swung the car around and got it back on the highway. They only made a half-hearted effort at chasing after me, shouting something I couldn’t hear, aside from “faggot”.
Al and I are on a cruise. We booked it with a gay group, and have dinner with four other couples. A couple of nights ago, two men stopped by and said, “You’ve really been the topic of conversation. What is this? It’s unusual to see a table of men all together.”
Don, who was nearest to them, joked that we were a bunch of gay veterans, and invited them to join us. They said they already had a table, that they were part of two couples celebrating 35th anniversaries. Don congratulated them and pointed to his husband Bob beside him, saying, “We’ve been together 52 years.” “52, huh?” they said, and there was something odd in it. They continued staring around the table. They didn’t seem in any rush to move on, and Don pointed to a couple of empty seats and again said they were welcome to join us. “No,” they said, “we have a couple of wives waiting for us.”
That was when I realized what was odd. It was the way they emphasized wives. We have a couple of wives to get back to. That was what was in their reaction to Don and Bob’s 52 years. They dismissed it. It was a joke. Not “Congratulations!”, but “52, huh?” They were staring around like they couldn’t wait to get back to Straightland and say, “Can you believe this? They’re acting like their ‘marriage’ is the same as ours.”
Don looked around when they left and said, “Well, that was weird. What kind of balls does it take to come up and ask a table full of guys why they’re together? I wonder if they would have done that with a table full of women.”
It did feel weird. At first, it felt like a friendly “Hi! Who are you guys? How’s it going? Enjoying your trip?”, but it took a turn. It took on a clear sinister undertone. It became an accusation — Where are the women here?
Someone said it might be unusual in their world, but for him, being out with a group of other men was the norm. I thought that if I were straight and saw a table full of men, I’d probably assume it was a gay group. Maybe they did. Maybe they were coming over to confirm and to let us know they knew. Would they have done it with a group of women, or just called it “Ladies Night Out”? More importantly, I wonder if they would have done it a year ago.
Trump has changed the conversations, and the expectations. We’ve passed through a time when it was understood that you don’t make a point of “You’re different from us, and we want you to know we don’t like it.” You could be as racist, homophobic, and/or misogynistic as you wanted, but you knew better than to say anything outside your circle of fellow bigots. Trump undid all that. When they see him spout the vilest filth imaginable and be elected to the highest office in the land, why should they hesitate to tell it like they think it is?
People have been seeing us around the ship for two weeks, and have figured out that we’re a couple. We’ve made straight friends who love spending time with us, especially Cath and Mike, the English couple Al met through frequenting the smokers section. But I’ve started feeling the need to watch my back again.
Yesterday, we got in a packed elevator, and though we smiled and nodded, there wasn’t a friendly face looking back. A few genuinely glowered at us. I got the old feeling. The chill on my skin that tells me I’ve just been clocked. Stared down. Pushed from Acceptable to Other.
There’s a knot in my stomach I haven’t felt there in decades. Not since the days of the kids outside Royal Farms.
There are always false positives. Some of it’s people distracted about something else. Some of it’s just the people who frown disapprovingly at everyone. But some of it is homophobia, and you can’t always spot it before it’s too late. When you have a physically vulnerable partner, you’re always a little on edge. And that’s no way to live.
All this from atop the tower of my white male privilege. I have means. I have anonymity. In a life-and-death situation, I can pass and hide. If I’m feeling this much fear, imagine how scared and vulnerable some Muslims and Hispanics feel. Transgender people thought their time was coming. Now calls to trans crisis lines are hitting record highs. Black high school students are asking their teachers whether slavery is coming back.
The flurry of columns and podcasts about “What do we do now?” have emphasized ways we can pick up the balls the government drops. We can take in refugees. We can volunteer at community centers. We can teach English and help immigrants feed their families. We can open our ears to our neighbors who voted for Trump because he listened to them when we wouldn’t. Those of us who are out can stay out. Holding Al’s hand in public has never felt like such a political act.
Above all, we can support the free press that gives us our best shot at finding out what’s going on and stopping the worst of it. Buy a subscription to the New York Times. Fund ProPublic. This is the worst possible time for investigative journalism to die with the newspapers. The (literal) bully pulpit will all-too-quickly fill the vacuum.
I’m encouraged by this line of thought. It’s positive and productive in the face of despair. The government has the power to do so much harm. The legacy of 4-8 years of Trump and many more years of his Supreme Court will be monumental. It will be the greatest stress test for our constitution since shots were fired at Fort Sumter. With vigilance and effort, maybe we can come out the other end still bending toward justice.
I’ve also taken heart by realizing how many admirable goals have moved to the private sector. They may even have gained enough momentum to be immune to government interference. It’s still business as usual for many — the pharmaceutical industry still develops drugs, then tries to price them out of the reach of the people who most need them. But many companies are finding ways to align corporate interests with the public good, to forward human progress instead of retarding it.
The development of self-driving cars is on track to become the greatest life saver in the developed world, and it’s happening almost entirely through private endeavors. Space exploration, which was wholly the domain of governments thirty years ago, is now advancing through startups. The biggest company in the world finds itself defending our privacy against our own law enforcers, and now against the first presidential candidate to invite foreign powers to hack our intelligence agencies.
Individuals can take up the slack of government. We may have found the first good reason to think of corporations as individuals. How much could they counterbalance government action and inaction? Trump can pull us out of climate change treaties, but what if companies develop renewable energy sources that make more financial sense than expensive fossil fuel operations? Could simple market forces pull us to safety despite vested interests? How many of our human goals can be checkmated by greed and stupidity? How many have already crossed the threshold to becoming the inevitable good?
In the coming years, we’ll be watching the government and holding it accountable, not looking to it for moral example and the best path forward. Let’s talk to one another — all of us, no us and them — and work for the betterment of us all. It’s in our hands more than ever.