This past December 26th, Chris and I drove into downtown Vancouver to take advantage of the Boxing Day sales at some of the local stores. We parked our car in the EasyPark facility on the edge of Yaletown and walked up a short driveway to Homer Street, the sky bright with early winter sunshine, and the temperatures cold and crisp. At Homer, we turned right and headed toward Robson.
Half a block up, our attention was directed to a female voice yelling out. I turned to my left to see a car race past us, windows open, laughing young women sitting in the front and back seats. For a second, the young woman sitting on the right rear passenger side caught my eye. Then the car was gone.
"What did she say?" Chris asked me.
"She said, 'fuckin' homos,'" I answered.
I felt numb at first, certain I'd misunderstood what I'd heard. I must have been mistaken, surely. Do people still do that? Open car windows and yell out insulting words? I was incredulous, dumbfounded. But I couldn't imagine what she might have said otherwise. As much as I wanted to give her the benefit of a doubt, I was sure I'd heard her correctly. How could I possibly misunderstand the words "fuckin'" and "homos" yelled out in our direction?
When the reality hit me that I'd really heard what I had, I'd like to say I wasn't affected by it. That I'd grown beyond being upset by the labels and the epithets and the name-calling that characterized my teen years, when I was in grade school, and, to a lesser degree, my life since then. I'd like to say that, but I can't.
The adult that I am now told me to ignore what had just happened as though it hadn't happened at all. It told me, you don't know the young woman, and she doesn't know you, so this isn't about you. Don't let it be about you. She and her friends were just having a little harmless fun. Maybe...maybe the words she yelled out hadn't even been directed at you. Maybe they were meant for someone else and not you at all.
But the little boy that I once was didn't register the logic of this. The little boy was struck as directly as he'd been years before, feeling himself stumble and fall down that familiar, deep, dark hole all over again. And all the adult he'd become could do was prevent him from falling as hard and as far as he had in the past, and help him find his way back up to the present.
Within a few minutes of the incident, I was angry, very angry. I thought, how dare she get to me like this and make me feel like I did thirty-five years ago. How dare she make me, a fifty-year-old man, who's dealt with enough shit from the past to fill a lifetime, and who's more settled within himself now and happier than he's ever been, in no small measure because of the long-term relationship he's shared with one of the most wonderful human spirits ever--how dare she bring me down, marginalize who I am, and what I've become, and what I have, and make me feel badly about myself, eliciting those same feelings of insecurity and self-loathing all over again. Who the hell does she think she is?
Monday afternoon, Chris and I had a couple of friends over, and we related the details of this experience to them. Each of them took opposite sides on the issue based on their own experiences. One, a sixty-year-old, who has lived his entire life closeted, dismissed what had happened and told me to let it go, to get over it, because it didn't have anything to do with my life now. But the other one, himself teased mercilessly in school for another reason altogether, understood how I felt, and how I could be affected all over again by what had happened.
The fact is that, as much as we'd like to think we've dealt with the hurt and the pain and the injustice of the past, and moved beyond it; as much as we'd like to think that our life circumstances are improved, and that we'll never be affected by people's insensitivity and cruelty the way we were once, we don't know that for sure, until we find ourselves in that position. It would seem that little child we once were lives on, just below the surface of our adult facades, as insecure and as vulnerable and as much in need of love and acceptance and belonging as ever before.
If only I could sit that young woman down, tell her what I've been through, and how she made me feel. If only she could know how hurtful she was and how ignorant, perhaps without really intending to be, she'd think twice about ever yelling out something equally inappropriate again. On the other hand, I don't have a lot of faith in young people these days. Appealing to their better judgment doesn't seem to get to them. They just look at you with glazed over eyes, as if you've landed on earth from outer space, or, worse, they laugh in your face. I imagine the young woman telling me to get off it, old man, it was only a joke. What's wrong with you? Can't you take a joke?
I'm struck by the fact that these words were uttered by a female. I've never heard a young woman direct a gay epithet at me before. Ever. Not that I remember. Young men have always been the ones to lash out, probably to cover up their own insecurities about who they are, about what gender they are most attracted to. Putting someone else down for the same thing they are but can't admit makes them feel better about themselves, stronger, more in control. What motivated a young woman to yell out an insult at gay men, I can't imagine. What did she have to gain? Did she have a boyfriend in the past who left and hurt her because he was gay? Who knows? Enough rationalizing about what happened. Enough trying to find an excuse for what she did.
In just a few days, it will be 2010, not 1962, or 1975, or 1988, when it was no less offensive to call gay men names, but when, culturally, society didn't accept homosexuality as much as it does now. There have been many improvements over the decades, including a greater awareness of differences in people in general, and gays and lesbians in particular, and even the legalization of gay marriage in Canada. More than ever, gay people are being validated in our society, and we are able to live our lives more and more just like every other Canadian does.
So where does the young woman get off yelling "Fuckin' homos" at Chris and me? She needs to get with the program. What's unacceptable now is not sexual orientation but people's intolerance toward it. It's time to get caught up, or be left behind.