It started out like any other day.
I had just finished my morning workout, when eleven words cut short the stillness of the locker room: "I don't mean to judge anybody, but it's just not natural."
At first, I kept my head down, torn between interrupting a private conversation or just quietly dealing with the churning in the pit of my stomach. But eventually, the rhetoric grew to be too much: "I'm not about this same-sex marriage stuff. It's all they care about. Besides, nobody talks about the fact that they're still out there spreading diseases."
"Stuff?" I thought to myself. "Diseases, really?" Clearly this man had no idea an LGBT equality and HIV prevention advocate was standing just a few feet away. But he was about to find out.
I marched over to his side of the locker room and discovered there were three of them: an older man who routinely invoked the Bible, despite asserting he was an atheist; a middle-aged man who had clearly never met a black, gay person before; and a millennial, not much older than myself, who also happened to be an employee of the gym.
I wanted to call them homophobes, but I focused instead on the impact of their words: "Excuse me gentlemen. Even if you aren't big supporters of the LGBT community, I'm sure there are ways for you to express your views without using such hateful rhetoric. And, more importantly, you're just plain wrong."
What started out a tense back-and-forth quickly became a 90-minute discussion of who LGBT people are and what it is our movement stands for. I raised my voice, arguing:
"Yes, marriage equality was a victory long overdue in this country. But LGBT people are at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, the backbone of immigrants' rights organizing, and members of many other social justice movements. We care about a lot more than you might think. Yes, we're one of the communities most heavily impacted by HIV, but the stigma you're perpetuating is what keeps people from getting tested or treated in the first place. More than anything, we're teachers, social workers, and members of YOUR community."
Despite giving what I thought might've been an Oscar-worthy speech, the men held firm in their opposition to LGBT equality, even though they were supportive of the other movements I had invoked. I suppose that's their Constitutional right. But I wasn't about to let the employee of the gym off the hook for being complicit in creating a hostile environment for his LGBT customers, co-workers, and patrons.
"I don't expect you to agree with me. But I do expect you to provide every person who comes in here with the same level of dignity and respect -- regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity." He rolled his eyes. "If you can't do that, then I don't think you're qualified to work here."
He might not have agreed with me. But luckily, his manager did. When I spoke with her about the altercation, she quickly apologized for the employee's behavior and assured me that her company is committed to diversity and the inclusion of LGBT people, both as an employer and a vendor. She promised swift and decisive action.
I left the gym both appalled and rattled by my experience, and vented about it minutes later to my colleagues at the nation's largest LGBT civil rights organization. They reminded me, in no uncertain terms, "That's the reason we do what we do. And we've got a long road ahead."
I couldn't help but nod along in agreement.