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The Other 'F' Word

This past weekend I was called a "faggot." Recently I'd realized that nothing like that had happened to me in a while and wondered if or when it would. When it did, it made me realize how much, and how little, has changed.
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This past weekend I was called a "faggot." It had been a while since that had happened. Recently, while reading about the wave of hate crimes in New York City, I'd realized that nothing like that had happened to me in a while and wondered if or when it would. When it did, it made me realize how much, and how little, has changed.

I've been out of the closet for 10 years. In the spring of 2003, when I was 18, I came out. I had met a boy, I was in college and everything seemed to line up. I knew I was gay long before that, but between some family and high school pressures I kept that closet door closed tight. At my high school I could pinpoint one openly gay guy; he was teased and bullied but found his place. But by the time my brother, four years my junior, graduated, he had plenty of openly gay friends. I was out, and I remember thinking about how amazing it was that the world had become so accepting.

The first time I can remember being called a "fag," I didn't know that it meant "gay." It was in middle school, and I was outside, waiting to be picked up. I was standing with some friends, and a kid who had it out for me came over and tried to get their attention. He shouted things like, "Hey, he's a fag," and, "You shouldn't hang out with faggots like that." He said other things, but those were the two that were seared into my memory. My friend Candice shook her head, turned to me and said, "Ignore him." And I did. I remember him walking away, clearly upset that the group had completely ignored him. I've only thought about it a few times since it happened, but the moment is very clear. I don't remember exactly how I felt; I think I was terrified, mostly at the possibility that he might be right, because at the time I knew that being gay was a sin that would cause eternal damnation, and I would spend eternity in the flames of hell, separated from my family and everything that I loved. (I don't think that's an age-appropriate lesson for children, but the fundamentalist church I grew up in isn't likely to take pointers on curriculum.)

Fast-forward to the fall of 2003, my sophomore year of college, a good six or seven years after I was first called a "fag." I was a theater major at Santa Monica College, a community college with a diverse student body, and I was out. I was in a makeup class with a lot of part-time students who all had a dream of pursuing acting or theater and making it in Hollywood. I sat in a row in the room with a middle-aged mother whose children were now a little older, so she had time to take classes, as well as a young girl around my age and a 30-something woman who worked as an office assistant and worked her schedule out to be allowed to take classes.

We had a great semester. Twice a week we would sit in our row in front of mirrors, practicing makeup on ourselves. We turned ourselves into animals, clowns and fops. We would chat about which shows SMC was producing and who was involved; we'd discuss our favorite plays and the latest films. We even talked about politics a bit (I proudly displayed my "Howard Dean for America" sticker at my station.) At our last class, while taking the final, the conversation moved to sexuality. The three women I had spent the semester with had not known I was gay. For over an hour the mother discussed how she doesn't want her children to be gay. The office worker described how she just doesn't get it. And the girl my age discussed ex-gay therapy. I shot back with the research I knew. Finally, toward the end of the class, I said, "You guys know I'm gay, right?" They were floored. I pointed out that they spent an entire semester with a gay man, he was relatively normal and they had thought nothing of it. The mother asked why I felt the need to tell them. It seemed that there was no consciousness of my need to point out to my "friends" how their attitudes had potential great effect on my life.

It had been a very long time since someone had assumed I was straight. For the first few years of college, classmates and parents would make that assumption, but mostly it's unspoken now. I don't need to tell people. I've been out since day 1 on every job I've ever had. It comes up in conversation, but from the get-go, as far as I can tell, between my gay rights advocacy, my pink phone case, my "I Heart Pro-Choice Boys" button and other visual cues, people don't assume I'm straight.

Earlier this year I was in Los Angeles and was having drinks with some acquaintances. A woman who was invited by a colleague was there, and I said something about being gay. A few minuets later the woman pulled me aside and asked me why I'd felt the need to say that. She didn't feel the need to tell me she's straight, she said, so why did I tell her? She seemed both disturbed by the information and generally curious. Nearly 10 years after my experience in my makeup class, a woman I didn't know was asking me why I'd felt the need to tell her I'm gay. Ten years later, same question.

Which brings me to this weekend. I was heading home from a celebration. Two friends had gotten married. They are wonderful, and we'd had a great time. I was riding the Metro home with two guys, one gay and one straight. I was also wearing one of the celebration decorations, a headband with two springs attached and stars fixed atop the springs. I gave them an easily identifiable target, but that's no excuse for their behavior. A group of high-school-aged students called me a "faggot" as I stepped off the Metro. My straight friend seemed the most upset by it, probably because he hasn't had to deal with the word since middle school.

This made me think about how much has changed. In 12 states and D.C. we can celebrate those friends who got married; the president and over half of the U.S. Senate support my freedom to marry; awareness and anti-bullying campaigns have changed the way people discuss and address these issues in schools. People like Neil Patrick Harris and Chris Colfer have successful careers; Jason Collins is an openly gay male athlete. More than half the population of the country believe that I should be able to marry the person I love. All of this is so different from what it was like when I came out. And the truth is that I feel more comfortable, more emotionally secure and more accepted because of all of this. But I am still not entirely safe, and my mother worries.

But so many of the personal interactions are the same. I'm still called the same word that I was called 16 years ago. I'm still asked the same question I was asked 10 years ago: "Why do you need to tell me?" And that's where we need to change things. If the women in my makeup class still remember that conversation, I'm sure they feel embarrassed. Those kids on the Metro will one day look back and will be ashamed of the language they used. If the string of hate crimes in New York City or the last few years of bullying-related suicides show us anything, it's that very real dangers exist for the LGBT community. Change has happened at a macro level, but we need to work to change it on the micro level. Yes, I can get married in some states, but I can also be called a "faggot" as I leave a gay wedding. Even though I am celebrating something that is legal and accepted by the majority, the underlying problem is still prevalent -- that is, a dangerous and willful ignorance in a segment of the population that is made evidence to violent effect in words and actions and continues to threaten my freedom and my safety.