Street Slurs: The Return of the F-Word Ended My Longest-Ever Winning Streak
Sometimes, the inability to remember is symptomatic not so much of a faulty sense of recall as it is of a scar not subjected of late to a new injury.
In this particular instance, I would attribute more to the latter than the former my uncertainty with regard to the duration of perhaps my best-ever winning streak, if by winning streak one means the most-extended elapse of time I’ve logged without being called a faggot whilst in the course of minding my own business, walking along the street.
Indeed, it’d been at least three years since that had occurred, and probably four, though perhaps not five.
Of course, it’s possible I’ve forgotten a moment of verbal hatred somewhere along the way. Certainly, some of the instances remain with you more pointedly than the others.
To wit, if “faggot” is punctuated with exclamation marks and anger, suggesting it could easily transition into something beyond words, something physical, something violent, that remains with you.
If “faggot” is yelled in the presence of a substantial crowd of people, whether or not many of the onlookers might agree with the appropriateness of the epithet’s hurling, its effect is magnified, as one flushes with embarrassment. And that remains with you.
If “faggot” is exclaimed in a place one generally perceives to be welcoming, that, too, remains with you.
Saturday night, it was none of those things.
Honestly, I just hadn’t been feeling it that day from the outset. The attacks in Paris were weighing on me, as were the impacts of sleep less than splendid. Thus, apart from leaving the house to get lunch -- which, thankfully, culminated in a delicious sandwich from Ten Top; friendly, buoyant banter with the employee who was working the counter; and golden sunshine -- I’d remained indoors for the entirety of the day, mostly watching CNN’s coverage of developments related to the terror attack, and engaging in largely-unsuccessful attempts to nap.
Ultimately, I’d elected not to attend a couple of other events in which I’d had interest that had gone on during the day, and it would’ve been easy to continue that trend into night. However, the long-awaited, years-in-the-making opening of Glass Wheel Studio was at hand. And as a glittering new anchor of Norfolk’s still-budding arts district, and as a space helmed by a friend, sitting out such an event was simply not an option.
So, when the hour arrived, I donned, for the first time this season, a wool peacoat and headed out into the slight chill of the evening. I’d actually considered walking the entire distance to Glass Wheel, but ultimately elected to drive.
Knowing the magnitude of the event, I chose not to wade into the studio’s comparatively-small parking lot, or to even attempt to locate a street spot nearby. Instead, I headed directly to the designated overflow parking area at the Harrison Opera House. Very few vehicles had flowed into the lot as of that point (in fact, almost none), but my preference is to park easily and quickly, then walk further to my destination, rather than drive and circle and circle and drive in an attempt to procure a closer spot that would minimize the need to hoof it. All in all, the time required is probably fairly comparable, but my modus operandi produces an experience that feels faster to me, and, certainly, it’s healthier and more environmentally friendly.
Nonetheless, after disembarking from my car, I had three paths to the gallery, though only two were apparent to me in that moment. I chose the one that may have been slightly more direct, and was definitely better-illuminated overall. Still, though, it was the equivalent of traversing my elbow to arrive at my fingertip.
Shortly after leaving the confines of the car, the tenor of the evening shifted toward the perilous. After looking both ways, I crossed Virginia Beach Boulevard mid-block, but, alas, a car initially out of my sight came quickly into view. I accelerated my pace and they slowed theirs, averting an unwanted meeting of metal and body.
After walking a short distance, I swung left onto Boush Street, then left again onto Olney Road, with the gallery less than a block ahead. While my mind’s eye had been fixed on the warm and welcoming lights of the art displayed in the gallery’s newly-constructed glass atrium, my body had just began to exit the green-tinged whiteness of the bright illumination of the gas station’s parking lot, and was about to pass into the orange glow of the city’s streetlights. It was in a darker gap between those two sources of illumination that I first caught sight of three kids heading in my general direction.
Seldom does one see in that area more than a random person or two on foot, and often no one at all, and that night was no exception. In that immediate vicinity, in spite of the fact that there was a major arts event within sight just ahead, there was no one in view immediately nearby, except for the three kids. I saw only them and me.
In most circumstances, with a trio of unsupervised kids roughly that age and the presence of no one else to mediate any commentary from them, I’d likely have exercised caution in any case, not so much out of concern for physical harm, but instead an awareness of the nastiness that can flow forth from the mouths of adolescents, a stance that, of late, was based more upon recollections from years past rather than recent experiences. However, since they were moving swiftly and toward my general direction, their trajectory indicating they were about to cross onto my side of the street, I was especially inclined to attempt to create my own protective bubble.
“Don’t look. Don’t look. Don’t look,” I thought to myself. And thus, I saw them with only my peripheral vision. I’d guesstimate that they were about 12 years old, but I’m quite terrible at estimating children’s ages, and they could’ve spanned the range from 10 to 14.
I couldn’t even tell you the gender of all of them, but there was at least one boy. At a glance, I thought the group included one, and perhaps two, girls, but there could’ve been two boys and one girl, or some other combination of genders. Nonetheless, I’ve typically found boys of that age more worrisome than girls (or, for that matter, men versus women, regardless of age), experientially having found them more inclined to lash out.
Though we were probably never closer than 15 to 20 feet away, as they made their way to my side of the street, I sensed I was being surveyed. There were murmurs and I braced myself to hear something unpleasant said amongst themselves, yet loudly enough for me to hear.
However, once they were behind me and I’d heard no such thing, I thought that perhaps my concerns had been unfounded. And then it came. A voice that likely belonged to a boy, and a sound that suggested he’d turned around to deliver his declaration, proclaimed into the night air, “Faggot!”
It was not the most jarring delivery I’d ever heard, and I had difficulty deciding whether my representation of it in the prior sentence should’ve been punctuated with an exclamation mark or not. While the kid obviously felt the need to denigrate publicly, he hadn’t yet developed his roar. Once his body grows, and there’s some size, muscle, and lung-power behind that voice, his declarations will carry more weight and become more menacing, if his intolerant ways continue.
Was it the way I moved? Was it the way I looked? Did the fact that I was carrying a bag that, to some, might resemble a modern clutch, but actually contained a camera, push that boy from thinking it to saying it? In situations such as that, one always wonders, but seldom does one find answers.
Since I didn’t turn around -- “Don’t look. Don’t look. Don’t look. Don’t engage” (since engagement, based upon quite a few accounts of harassment I’ve read over the years, often seems to be the trigger that transforms an incident from the verbal to the physical) -- I can’t know for sure, but given their direction of travel and what was in the immediate vicinity, I suspect they were heading to the convenience store attached to the gas station, which is Exxon-branded. That’s likely the most repugnant of the major gas and oil companies, having been the most vehemently anti-gay in that industry, steadfastly refusing to provide discrimination protections for its employees, adding them only when legally required to do so -- directives that forced their hand years after other major competitors in that realm had added such protections voluntarily. Considering the circumstances, it seems appropriate that it was an Exxon station.
Wherever the kids were going, though, I assume their night continued unimpeded, untinged by their own ugliness, the encounter largely forgotten, with the possible exception of my later becoming the punchline of a joke or the object of a story laced with disgust as the boy perhaps spoke of “the faggot with the purse.”
To be frank, that particular instance of verbally-expressed hatred didn’t impact me to the agree they once did, always. Nonetheless, it lingered in my mind, frequently reappearing in the background, remembrances of it coloring my experience of what otherwise would’ve been the unimpeded joy of the opening of a wonderful new arts space.
Fortunately, though, moments after arriving at the gallery, my friend Tanya happened to also arrive. The timing of her appearance was like a throwback to times past. So often, she and I would show up at the same events, unplanned, and just minutes apart in many instances. Indeed, I’d say that that’s one of the ways and reasons we began to get to know one another much better.
Other friends then appeared, but passed quickly through, on the way to a comedy show at the nearby Push Comedy Theater.
And after a few more ticks of the clock, a former resident of the region who’d moved away a few years ago appeared before us. Neither Tanya nor I had known he was back in town for a visit, and the delight of the surprise gave way to quite a number of minutes of conversation. I told him he looked gorgeous, which was a reference to his spirit at least as much as his physicality. Honestly, he was radiant. He was confident and comfortable in his own skin, and though I’d always viewed him as daring, even before he’d left the area, there was a new spark to his demeanor, presenting something lovely that I’d never realized was missing. That was beautiful to see, and cheered me, helping to temporarily displace the feelings of what I’d experienced just minutes before.
Nonetheless, the feeling that I’d had upon arriving at the gallery remained with me for the duration of my visit: I wanted to tell someone what had happened, to diffuse the impact of the venom by releasing it. Of course, in so doing, one runs the risk of transferring the unpleasant feelings to others, diminishing their joy, as well.
Certainly, I hadn’t wanted to introduce that thread of conversation in front of someone who’d returned to the area for a visit, and after the visitor moved on, Tanya’s ear was quickly bent by someone who wished to drone on about a topic I couldn’t stomach at the moment, so I continued on my way and never saw her again. And as mentioned, the other good friends I’d also seen had swiftly dispersed into the night in pursuit of their own further adventures.
So strong, though, was my desire to tell someone, anyone, that I even considered mentioning it to a couple of gay men I later ran into, but didn’t know well. Of course, the desire to disclose such information tends to battle with the embarrassment associated with doing so, and ultimately, the impulse to contain the embarrassment within proved more intense than the desire to release and possibly diffuse it. Not until Tanya messaged me later to ask if I was still there (I was not) did I mention briefly what had transpired. Certainly, it always feels less embarrassing to share such information when one needn’t see the face of the person receiving it.
Over the years, I’ve puzzled more than once about a member of one minority or disadvantaged group disparaging another without provocation, particularly when one might argue that it’s self-defeating, with the potential to create enemies from allies.
In an area such as Hampton Roads, which has a relatively small, out LGBT community, I used to be perplexed that it didn’t feel more utopic and fraternal when we’d all cross paths in the bars week after week, or out on the streets in broad daylight, embracing one another in such moments, rather than looking past or through, as if the bodies of one’s brothers and sisters were invisible.
I’ve also been stopped in my tracks, metaphorically if not literally, when I’ve overheard homeless people use the N-word, which has transpired several times here in Hampton Roads, seemingly in reference to other homeless people on at least a couple of occasions. (In Portland, OR, it was in reference in Obama, though in the presence of other African-American people.)
Somewhat akin to the local gays, one might’ve thought that that minority group, bound together by extreme economic disadvantage instead of sexual orientation, might’ve existed in greater harmony, if only for the sake of necessity and safe-keeping, though it would seem that the prejudices of some are too entrenched to be put aside, even in the face of adversity.
Of course, I’ve also marveled when a homeless person has called me a faggot whilst I was minding my own business. I can recall at least two men in Ghent who did so; one of them did it multiple times, saying that any time he’d be within sight of me. Since he biked around the neighborhood, and I walk a lot, our paths crossed more than I would’ve preferred. But inasmuch as we’re talking about people who often require (and sometimes request) a good deal of help and assistance from others to survive, to have members of that community go out of their way to be nasty and to denigrate was something I found quite astonishing.
In a similar vein, I think one of the key reasons Saturday’s episode of harassment stood out was that the youths were African-American. As someone who tries to treat everyone with respect unless and until I’m treated otherwise (and sometimes even after that), and as someone who’s heard and tried to understand (as well as someone who grew up in a very white world can) the calls from many in the black community regarding the continued presence of widespread racial discrimination, there was definitely a part of me that wanted to tell that child that I'm one of the good guys (not that he could’ve known that simply by observation, obviously), and to speak about the need to construct bridges and build alliances, not destroy them -- or to at least not openly express hatred to someone minding his own business.
Of course, I understand that he was young, and that few children of that age would, in the flash of an instant, be considering their potential impact upon the intertwined web of humanity and the world around them. No, in that moment, he likely saw an opportunity to feel powerful (when perhaps he often does not in his daily life) and to strike out against someone he must’ve felt was inferior and less worthy, to demonstrably distance himself from someone he viewed as a freak. Certainly, though, it would be presumptive of me if I were to have assumed that he even believed, at his tender age, that racism exists as an issue that impacts his life, and thus, whether the idea of having allies would even be something for which he could see the need and with which he could connect -- if, that is, one requires a perspective of self-interest to refrain from openly spewing hate.
The “coulda-woulda-shoulda” track playing within my mind also imagined talking to him about how easy it can be to lose allies, that while no one individual member of a community -- gay, trans, black, Muslim, insert-minority-group here -- should ever be able to define an entire class of people, for those who have little contact with a given minority group, sometimes one interaction can, for better or worse, produce an ally or an enemy for the entire group. (And for that matter, who’s to say that this kid hadn’t previously had an interaction with someone who was, or whom he believed to be, gay, which had soured him on the entire lot of us, thus resulting in the experience I had Saturday night?)
Reflecting, though, on the intersection between ethnicity and taunts of this type is not something I’ve had any reason to do in a very long while, as I’m not sure how far back I’d have to time-travel to reach a prior instance of being called a faggot by anyone other than a white male (and generally white males who appeared to be from at least a middle-class background). However, I suppose if I were going to attempt to comment from a similar perspective, I’d find myself thinking, “You were born into the most privileged combination of gender and ethnicity in America, and still you’ve no compassion for others, to the point you verbalize such asshole-ish remarks, unprovoked?”
Of course, in a world that is as broken and chaotic as ours can sometimes be -- and has certainly felt of late -- speaking of this episode, as insignificant as it is in the scheme of things, feels almost self-indulgent. That said, its power derives, in part, from connecting me to the combined weight of an accumulation of such episodes during my life, and serving as a reminder that such a mindset still exists, and that just because you’re willing to be respectful of others doesn’t mean you’ll be afforded the same courtesy.
Then, too, I find it a tad bit ironic that I was roughly the same age of the boy who shouted the slur when I began to experience a fairly dramatic acceleration in the frequency of the verbal attacks against me that were based on my perceived sexual orientation. And roughly three decades later, as a 40-something male, it seems I may still occasionally experience the taunts of an adolescent.
Less self-indulgently, though, it’s perhaps important to consider that if this child is willing to taunt a stranger on the street, he’s quite possibly regularly taunting other children at school. And while verbal taunts are at the lowest end of the continuum that defines the severity of intimidation, at the other end are physical assaults, sometimes ending in death.
Indeed, almost a year ago, a transgender woman of color was murdered in Norfolk, and the crime remains unsolved. And late last month, a drag performer walking home from work in Newport News was attacked, the victim of what he indicated was a hate crime. And just a few days ago, I read about a trans woman in San Francisco, of all places, who has been physically assaulted twice in that city within a year’s time.
Obviously, not all of those who engage in verbal taunts engage in more serious instances of intimidation -- in fact, I would assume that most do not -- but some do. And in spite of all the progress that’s been made in recent years, the world can sometimes still be a painful and dangerous place for those who don’t adhere to others’ ideas concerning norms of gender and sexuality.
Yet it goes without saying that progress has been made. There was a time, not too many years ago, when six or twelve months was about the longest I’d ever go between instances of hearing myself called a faggot -- almost every instance of which occurred within the bubble of Ghent, arguably the most progressive neighborhood in the region. Indeed, at one time, it occurred with sufficient frequency that I’d considered doing an interactive mapping project that would’ve linked the location to a description of the incident. (And later, I learned of a similar project that was launched to chronicle street-harassment of various kinds -- including that aimed at sexual-orientation and gender identity -- a project for which there was a Richmond, VA-specific presence.)
Across the street from the place at which I was called a faggot on Saturday night, there’s a whimsical, wall-mounted sculpture by the wonderful Sam Hundley, who works primarily with metal, largely using recycled and found objects. This one depicts a frog. Seeing it in the context of this instance, I’m reminded of a plaque that used to hang in the home of a family member. It had an image of a frog and read, “You would be happy, too, if you could eat what bugs you.”
And oh, how I would’ve loved for the sculpture’s long, sinuous, sticky tongue to have snared from the air the epithet and the hate behind it, delivering it into the frog’s stomach to be devoured, rendered, and expelled as the excrement that it actually was, transforming it, in the process, from something destructive into something constructive, from which perhaps something lovely could’ve grown and blossomed.
Nonetheless, let’s hope that the buffet from which the frog may choose is limited, from here on out, to flies and other delicacies appropriate to such creatures, rather than words and emotions as foul and caustic as acid rain, which can etch even stone after years of exposure.
Note: Shortly after deciding what I was going to call this piece, I was thumbing through the current issue of Veer Magazine and saw an article whose title referenced “The F-Word.” Thinking perhaps they’d published something about the same topic, I took a glance. Their F-word was not my F-word (and, in fact, was entirely different), which helps to illustrate how our own experiences and worldviews shape our perceptions of the language we find most troubling.