Over the past 24 years, we've lived openly as a loving couple, not so much as a statement, but as a way to live more honest, healthy lives for ourselves. I have spoken openly at work, telling simple stories of what my partner and I did over the weekend as my coworkers have recounted their own with husbands and wives. We've held hands in restaurants and shared with the waitstaff our own playful sense of humor and love of food. We've gotten to know our neighbors, trading recipes and holiday wishes. Whenever I've learned that we have been an example to others, a statement, a revelation, their reactions have in turn been a revelation to me. We're not revolutionaries by any means. We've lived our lives this way to make our own world better.
Two weekends ago when the weather was surprisingly warmer and the sky shown crystal blue through new leaves, Bob and I sat on a bench in Washington Square Park watching the entertaining cross section of humanity stroll by. The ages, languages, styles that pass through the park have become commonplace to me, but that weekend one thing in particular caught my attention. The number of young gay and lesbian couples walking hand-in-hand seemed greater than ever, especially for a weekend outside of June or for a space that has become more like a college campus than the center of the counter-culture universe that it once was. And I imagined to myself that the world was truly, finally, changing...for good.
And then the past week happened.
Five unrelated bias crimes against gay people, culminated in the murder of a 32-year-old gay man on the street where we live. The murder victim, Mark Carson, whom the New York Times reports grew up in New York City, would have been eight years old when Bob and I first met, making him old enough to know the difference between then and now. Old enough to let down his guard a little, as we have, maybe even take it for granted or celebrate it, as we have. Old enough that he and his friend may have thought a wiser comeback to a rude homophobic remark on the street would be sufficient, like I have often imagined.
Last week, as Bob and I walked home along that very block of Eighth Street, we passed the front of the BBQ restaurant only a few doors from where the shooting would occur a few days later. The restaurant's clientele stands out as not being from the same world, much less the same neighborhood, as the locals. The patrons often seem like central casting for a reality TV show whose entire premise is to see the participants fight. I assume they choose this terribly mediocre restaurant because it's as recognizable as an Olive Garden among the more upscale and confusing menus in the neighborhood. I've said sassy, nasty little things about the restaurant and its patrons to friends, inferring that BBQ stands for "Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens" and calling restaurants like it "roach motels for tourist," sucking them in so that we don't have to share our good restaurants with them. I've thought of it as expressing my distaste for the restaurant and its food. On reflection, I know I was being preemptively mean, uncomfortable with some of the clientele, having seen "outsiders" like these cause trouble in my neighborhood, and feeling afraid to be myself around them.
So, in fact, last week outside the BBQ on Eighth Street, despite that it was early afternoon, three men in their 30s staggered slurring comments about a lesbian couple who had just passed them, and continued their homophobic remarks as they weaved along the sidewalk. Their wobbly bravado was displayed more for one another than anyone else, but it triggered the same series of unspoken comebacks that this always does in my head: "What are you doing in the Village, anyway?" "What did you expect to see here?" "There's no room for that kind of talk here." "Grow up." "Go back to where you came from." Lately I've been more and more tempted to speak these comebacks out loud.
Reports from witnesses say that Mark Carson and his companion may have done just that on Friday night. They may have spoken back to their assailant when he first encountered them on Sixth Avenue, and then again when he followed them around the corner onto Eighth Street. Carson was a smart young man, who had recently used his savings to move to a better apartment in Brooklyn. Friends say he was creative and very confidently himself. His assailant is quoted to have made some very feeble hateful remarks about Carson and companion being gay. Several intelligent comebacks may have passed through Carson's head or lips, before he was shot in the face pointblank. I know they would have gone through my mind in the same situation, before I realized how serious the situation had become.
This was not the setting for a Carson or anyone to have a sensible conversation about prejudice, fear and hate, but I don't know that it's happening anywhere these days. It seems that, on so many levels in today's world of tweeted retorts and media battles, whether one is bickering with a stranger on the street or as a reporter on the Fox network, the person who makes the most forceful or withering remark is considered the winner. The only thing that trumps the witty sound bite is a weapon. It's scripted that way in movies. It happens that way in politics. It unfolds that way in the comment sections on the Web. We seldom engage in the deeper conversations. We seldom address the prejudices that fuel the hatred, whether its the homophobia of Friday's murder or my own fear of "the other" in my neighborhood.
People have been working much longer and much harder than I have to end the hatred and oppression that make it difficult for LGBT people to live without fear for their human rights or their lives, and we've made important, amazing advances in just this past year itself. It is even to be expected, I suppose, that such rapid advances would be followed by a backlash, especially because so many forces that do not want us to feel safe or happy with ourselves as homosexuals continue to speak freely, publicly against us.
As long as TV personalities, pastors, and pundits are allowed to make outrageously hateful claims against gay people, then people like Friday night's murderer feel justified in their actions. As long as public figures like Pat Robertson are allowed to say things like marriage equality is the cause of natural disasters or that it's okay to call gay basketball player Jason Collins "an abomination," haters will feel justified in how ever they express their hate. As long as we overlook assertions like the one made by Pope Francis when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, that homosexual marriage and adoption are the work of Satan, we allow so many believers to feel right in believing the same. As long as Michelle Bachmann, Fred Phelps, and a host of other personalities whom we often dismiss as ridiculous and crazy are given the public space to speak, public spaces will not be safe for any of us.
Until a larger portion of our society speaks up, engages in conversation, withdraws funding, boycotts advertisers, walks away from church leaders, and even condemns the kind of speech that is currently defended as within the speaker's first amendment rights, hateful people will feel justified in their hate, to the point of great heartache and even death to LGBT people, people like Bob and me, people that you love.
So, I'm encouraging those who have supported people like Bob and me, "liked" our posts, shared our pictures, laughed at our witty comebacks, encouraged and loved us, to take the next step. Help us fight to finally change the way our society treats LGBT people wherever you see it, even among your relatives, at your church, in your schools, your TV stations, or favorite retail stores. Encourage deeper conversations. Make them listen. Challenge the rhetoric focused on LGBT people, or anyone feared as "other," whether from institutions or within yourself. Help us by no longer tolerating in the least bit the systemic hate that fuels the actions of those individuals who are most dangerous. Help us wipeout homophobia and hatred before it harms another person.
On Monday, an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 New Yorkers took to the streets of the Village to march and rally against the recent string of violent attacks on gay men that culminated in the death of Mark Carson. That same afternoon one of the deadliest storms on record tore across Oklahoma, virtually wiping the entire town of Moore off the face of the earth. My twitter and Facebook feeds were a heartbreaking weave of posts from the rally and pictures of the tornado's impact. Unrelated, but both deeply distressing, these events have lingered on my mind and in my heart.
It took less than 24 hours for two other violent attacks on gay men to happen within a few blocks from where the rally had taken place, and for the press to give a fresh round of coverage to cultish religious leader Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church as he almost giddily blamed the Oklahoma tornado on another gay person, basketball player Jason Collins.
This so-called religious leader's insensitivity is as insulting to the devastated people of Moore as it is to LGBT people and their loved ones, particularly the Carson family. And once again, as sure as the violence and hate wasted no time rearing its ugly head on Monday, rhetoric like Phelps' will almost certainly lead to more assaults, possibly more deaths, fueling the hate and violence of unstable, misguided would-be assailants.
As I wrote last weekend, we must make these horrible people stop standing on the horrific misfortunes of others as if they were a soapbox. We have to make them stop fanning the flames of scapegoatism, violence and murder.
Back in December a petition was started on the White House website to have the Westboro Baptist church officially designated as a hate group. I signed it and encourage others to sign the petition too.
The more we call out church leaders, politicians and media personalities for spreading hate and instigating violence, the sooner we'll end the abuse.