By Michael James Schneider, PQ Monthly
When I woke up that morning, getting into a physical altercation with a bigot was the last thing I thought I would be doing. I had been puttering around my house when the word “faggot” came through my open windows that hot day. It was barked in a harsh male baritone in the context of a conversation, and then it was repeated. It had startled me so much to hear that ugly word in my own space that I stood up from a sitting position in the middle of my living room. I stood for a moment, letting the feelings wash over me.
I felt like I did that time the bullies loomed over us underclassmen at Denny’s, so many years before. I felt the way I did when my friend Helen told me in high school that my secret crush intercepted the note I wrote to her, telling her that I was deeply infatuated with him.
At the time, 20 years ago, I panicked. I spent the night unable to sleep. I went to school the next day, terrified that every single person in the school now knew I was gay. Helen told me hurriedly that Mark wanted to meet me later. I went to the meeting meekly, scared that he would be there with all his friends, that he would want to kick my ass. Instead, he apologized for grabbing the note from Helen, and although he didn’t reciprocate the feelings, he and his friend promised to keep my secret. They kept it, all the way through graduation.
I wasn’t out in high school. Hell, no one was in Albuquerque High School in the late ’80s…except Jack. I remember Jack’s first name and what he looked like clearly, his sometimes-colored, short-cropped hair, his fashionable Chelsea boots. I remember how he walked down the halls of our high school: with a sense of purpose, like he owned the place, his head held high. Amazingly, I never saw him bullied or beat up, but in retrospect it seems inevitable he was.
Jack influenced me. He was without question the first peer I ever saw who was proud of being queer, unabashedly out in a time and place that was hostile to him. I regret not getting to know Jack.
Back to present day: I stepped out of my building into the summer sun. I looked to my left, and there was not one but two figures sitting in the shade, just below my window. I took a deep breath and walked toward them. With every step I got more information about them. With every step I grew calmer and calmer, my fists loosened, my fingernails no longer pressing into my palms. With every step I knew this wasn’t going to go at all how I thought it would.
I reached them, one man and one woman, him reclined on the grass of the lawn; she sat in a portable chair. They were both elderly; his voice from inside had sounded like the voice of someone in his 30s or 40s, not this man easily in his 70s. Neither looked up at me, they just gazed into the distance, silent. I cleared my throat.
“Hey, has anyone passed by here?” I asked, knowing no one had.
The man looked up at me, directly in the eye. “No, it’s just been us here for a few minutes.”
Hearing his voice, it confirmed my suspicion: the voice I heard was his. I decided to be direct: “Did you just say the word faggot?” I emphasized the last word, but almost garbled it. My mouth formed around it, spat the word out as if the word tasted vile. I never say the word, even in the company of friends…some of whom can pull off saying it in a funny context, us all tacitly acknowledging that we don’t mean it in a hateful way. Apparently I never got used to using the word in any context, much less jokingly.
“No, uh.” The man sighed, seeming to make a decision. “Yeah, uh, you may have heard me at my, uh, most passionate…”
I cut him off. “Well, someone gay lives here,” I pointed at my window, “and it’s me. I don’t want to hear that word in my home.”
He was visibly startled. “I, uh, know a couple of homo—uh, fag—uh, gays and they’re okay guys.”
“I don’t really care what you think about gay people. I just don’t want to hear that word in my house, okay?”
The woman next to him never looked over, just gazed off into the distance. Whether in obliviousness or embarrassment or spite I’ll never know. “Okay,” said the man in a small voice, looking confused.
I walked back inside, and they left the lawn shortly afterwards. The thing that struck me was how confused he was, and it wasn’t due to age. No, he was sharp as a tack. It was that he didn’t even know what words to use for gay people. I wondered what that felt like, to grow up in an environment where it was okay to hate, to be surrounded by friends and family who agreed with the words you used, and then suddenly be in a world where if you use those same words, strangers will come up to you and confront you. What a charmed, privileged life I’ve been living, if I’ve only had to call out homophones and bigots these few times in my life. Some people have it worse. Some people have it way worse.
I dug out my high school yearbooks, got on the computer, and started the search for Jack.
To be concluded in Part Three. Part One can be found in June’s issue.