Context is everything. If the past decade’s worth of anthropological musings and experiences has taught me anything, it’s that simple fact. And as my boyfriend Andy and I were accosted this past Saturday, that phrase looped through my mind.
The morning had been a good one. We slept in, went out for breakfast, then drove to a favorite antiquing haunt with new iTunes as our morning’s soundtrack. The beautiful day was ours for the taking, and we were enjoying every minute of it.
Until we returned to Raleigh a few hours later and pulled up to a traffic light. A new Ford pickup idled in the next lane over, and I paid it little attention.
It was one of those quietly perfect moments: his hand in mine, the music low and soothing.
And then erratic movement from the truck drew my attention.
The truck’s backseat passenger talked animatedly to his front seat companions and motioned toward us. The smile he had plastered across his face was eerily familiar–one I’d seen exchanged between drunk fraternity brothers threatening me and my friends outside an Alabama gay bar; the same I’d experienced countless times in crowds, followed by whispers and pointed fingers; the exact one I faced when four men in a similar truck tried to force me off an Alabama road. So I knew what was next.
But instead of engaging them, I stared ahead and silently willed the light to change. And I kept holding Andy’s hand, squeezing it a little tighter.
Their gestures became more emphatic and drew Andy’s attention. I looked over with him, into their hateful faces. We raised our clasped hands, and I kissed his. And that’s when things escalated. Because when bigots are literally faced by those whom they taunt, they suddenly realize their targets have means of reacting–can hold their own–and they panic. That’s when they started screaming “Fucking faggots!” We responded with our own salutation and matching raised middle fingers.
The light changed. We got ahead of them. I seethed with anger. The car ahead of them turned, and their truck pulled up beside us. Leaning out the lowered window, the backseat rider screamed a few more “faggot”-laced comments. That’s when Andy took out his phone and took their picture. Like a chastised child, the bigot dove into the backseat, rolled up the window, and the truck accelerated.
I tailed them while Andy leaned into the windshield and made it very clear that we were photographing their license plate. They began weaving haphazardly through traffic. I slowed and turned down our street.
And we were once again left in silence. But this time, it was tinged with discomfort and anger. And fear.
We pulled up to the house and sat there. I got out. As I removed my keys from my bag, I fought back tears demanding release and shook off tremors running through my hands. I tried to laugh things off. I couldn’t.
Neither of us could smile, even as we dumped out our our antiquing spoils and situated them in the apartment. And then we lay down and held each other. There was tacit knowledge–a close call.
We knew we could’ve easily been on a deserted road, in the middle of nowhere. They could’ve been drunk, and more reactive. There could’ve been more of them. They could’ve had a gun. We could’ve had a gun. And the latter thought scared me even more.
And the provocative act in all of it? Holding hands.
I know, it’s terrifying. It hurts the children. It’ll surely evoke nature’s wrath and wipe Raleigh off the map. Yet, it was that innocuous act, in the privacy of my personal vehicle, which tipped them over the edge.
I’ve long realized that the world is full of hateful, ignorant, despicable people. The same people who break into a woman’s home, tie her up, carve “Dyke” into her body, and attempt to burn her alive; the same people who kidnap children to “save” them from their “immoral” parents; the same people who advocate for “rounding up the deviants” and confining them in electrified fences until they starve to death. The same people who fail to see the hypocrisy in tying a man to a fence, beating him, and leaving him to die alone in the name of a man who was nailed to a cross, beaten, and left to die alone.
The point at which a person is objectified to the degree that they are no longer considered human is the point at which unimaginable violence is exacted upon them. It’s the point at which LGBT individuals become hate crimes.
For me, the terrifying reality of this particular incident is that–in our country today–these three men stand an equal chance of being reprimanded for their hateful behavior as they do for being commended for their “defense of traditions.”
And until you find yourself on the “other” side, it’s much easier to turn a blind eye to hate–to tell yourself that your sandwich doesn’t fund murder, to quell the rising fear within your heart that such behavior may one day be directed at you.
After all, you’re just holding someone’s hand. What could possibly come of that?