On a recent Saturday morning, while walking my dog down a quiet, tree-lined street in my Manhattan neighborhood, I heard a loogie being hocked. I thought nothing of it -- until a mixture of saliva and snot landed directly in front of my pooch's paws.
Living in New York, I'm used to social graces taking a backseat sometimes. So while Miss Manners would definitely have frowned upon spitting on the sidewalk, I gave my perpetrator -- a tall, dreadlocked man in a rasta cap -- the benefit of the doubt. I assumed he wasn't aiming at my dog. Or at me.
As I continued on my way, however, the man spat out something far worse than a slimy glob of phlegm. He spat out a homophobic slur: faggot.
I was shocked. Did that really just happen? In New York City? In 2013?
I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised. There had been a string of anti-gay attacks in New York recently, including a fatal shooting in the West Village. But still, how did he even know I was gay? I had on lime green shorts and a plain t-shirt. Did straight guys not wear lime green? Had I accidentally sat in a pile of glitter earlier?
Compared to being beaten black and blue, or shot dead, a verbal assault didn't seem so bad. Things could always be worse, I reminded myself -- I could be living in Nigeria or Russia, under strict anti-gay laws.
'Faggot' was just a word. So I chose to ignore it. I resisted the urge to respond with my own f-word (something that rhymed with "truck you") and I gave the man an internal eye-roll instead. When I arrived home, I didn't even bother to mention it to my partner. The incident didn't deserved any more of my time; I was going to brush it off and move on.
It wasn't that easy. Days, even a week later, the scene would pop back into my head at the most mundane times. Running on the treadmill, lathering my hair with shampoo, waiting in line at Starbucks while the person in front of me ordered blended drinks for her half-dozen office mates -- my cheeks would grow warm and I'd suddenly remember: "Hey, someone called me a faggot the other day."
I was bothered to still be bothered by it. The event, while not traumatizing, continued to eat away at me. Why? I grew up in the Midwest. I didn't like football; I liked playing with girl's hair and attending midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This was not my first time at the gay slur rodeo.
In high school, I quit playing soccer because one of my teammates used to trip, push, and punch me while calling me a faggot. It usually happened in the locker room, in front of the rest of our team, who never did anything to stop him.
At my first job, a grocery store my family shopped at, a co-worker used a permanent marker to write, "BK is a fag" on a stall in the restroom. The graffiti stayed there for months, and I stopped using that bathroom until the manager finally had someone paint over it. But even then, underneath a single coat of cheap, white primer you could still make out the words.
I was good at ignoring the name-calling when it happened. Of course, at that time I was also trying to ignore my sexuality. Living in the sheltered suburbs and attending Catholic school, I didn't have any gay role models to guide me. I thought homosexuality was evil and a sin. I would have preferred to drive my car off of a bridge -- a solution I frequently considered -- than admit I was gay.
Back then, my tormentors had power over me because I was ashamed of what they were calling me. Thankfully, that's no longer the case. I eventually left the bubble I was living in and realized there was nothing wrong with me. Today, I like to consider myself a well-adjusted, proud gay man. I can kiss my partner in public without having to look over my shoulder first. I wouldn't change my sexuality if I could.
But does the man who recently called me a faggot know that? Maybe that's what still bothers me: He doesn't know that I'm not embarrassed of being gay.
I still believe that not responding to my verbal attacker was the right decision. He didn't seem like the type of person whose mind could have been easily changed through a heart-to-heart discussion on sexuality. Besides, trying to engage him could have been dangerous. Just last week, a gay couple was beat up in Chelsea (a very gay-friend neighborhood of Manhattan) after talking back to the two men who allegedly used the f-word on them.
While I'm glad I didn't say anything, I have come up a response. Even if he'll never hear it, I'd like to at least put it out there in the universe. Or on the Internet.
Yes, I'm gay.
But no, I don't have a problem with it.
I'm sorry that you do.