Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Just Who Should We Fear, Anyway?

I routinely visit the doctor for ongoing treatment of Lupus, but I got way more than I bargained for last week when I got into it with a group of patients in the waiting room.

The issue that brought about the mini-skirmish was homosexuality in general, and gay marriage in particular.

Guess I’d better explain. When I arrived, my doctor was running late (don’t they always?), so I found a seat in the small and very crowded waiting room. A TV was blaring a Jerry Springer-like program in the corner. I’d brought a book to read, so I sat as far from the set as possible, which sadly put me facing the group of eager TV viewers.

These folks included more than 20 mixed race people, a little older than a normal cross-section of the public because the doctor we were waiting for is a rheumatologist. The key “player” in what turned out to be my personal drama was a man in his 30’s who had driven his elderly mother to her appointment and was waiting with her. He was quite handsome: tall, fit – cut even – with a stylish shaven head, but a less-than-stylish toothpick sticking out of the corner of his mouth. He was wearing expensive summer shorts and a blue polo shirt. He was also very loud.

At some point on the TV program, a homosexual man and his partner were picked out of the audience. They said they were planning to wed when/if it ever became legal in their home state. Immediately, the handsome man I was sitting across from began making unpleasant remarks about the gay couple on the TV. He loudly expressed how disgusting, etc. the whole thing was, prompting the bulk of the remainder of those in the waiting room to chime in their complete agreement. The handsome man, egged on by the obviously appreciative crowd and vise-versa, began to laugh derisively at the men on the TV. The handsome man and several others in the waiting room continued to express and utter a lot of vicious gay-bashing insults, and similar remarks that I will not dignify by repeating here.

As the whole thing unfolded, I literally felt sick to my stomach. I am bisexual, but even if I was straight, I would have been deeply offended by the terrible hate-talk.

After a few minutes, I found that I had almost involuntarily put my book down and was facing all of them. Quite abruptly, as if I was looking down on myself from some place high and hovering just below the ceiling, I interrupted this room of average Americans. At that point, almost all of them were laughing merrily – very happily bashing homosexuals, the handsome man at the center of it all, his eyes absolutely twinkling with cruel delight.

With as level a voice as I could manage, I softly asked them if they, “did not like gay people?”

An African-American woman who appeared to be in her 50’s answered without hesitation, “No,” prompting the majority of the group to all nod in agreement. The handsome man laughed again, and the others joined him.

She went on to proclaim that she was Christian, and that nowhere in the Bible did it say that homosexuality was anything but a sin, or that “those awful, awful people could marry.”

Another woman, who was white and said she was Italian-American and Catholic, said she agreed completely, proclaiming that, “those sick people will all go to hell, and this country will be better off without them in it.”

I told them that I couldn’t understand that view at all, that I tried to judge each person as an individual, and not to stereotype them. I said that I had thought that Christianity promoted that very approach. I also noted that the Bible also fails to condemn slavery, while actually providing instructions to slave owners. As a result, I suggested to the African-American woman that perhaps her citing it as support for an anti-homosexuality argument wasn’t the best choice under the circumstances.

For some reason, I kept talking. I noted calmly that many of those who were speaking out against homosexuals in the room were of different races. I told them that to me, “gay-bashing is just another form of bigotry – a different flavor of prejudice.”

The handsome man, who happened to be African-American, had suddenly become very, very, angry. He sharply and loudly criticized me for “daring” to speak out “in favor of those fags,” and for horribly comparing it to racial bigotry. He said I was "full of shit,” and that he had a right to his opinion.

I told him I agreed completely that he had the right to believe anything and everything that he chose. Swallowing my now palpable fear, I unwisely added, “but you’re in a public place, laughing at and insulting a group of people simply because of their sexuality. I really see it as bigotry. Your conversation and behavior are very offensive to me, and I would appreciate it if you would stop.”

An immediate and deep-as-a-ravine silence followed in which the only sound I could hear was my own heart thudding wildly in my chest like it was trying to jump completely out of my body, along with the constant drone of the TV.

“We’ll stop – but not because of you, because we’re finished talking,” he said, twisting his handsome features into an honest-to-God sneer. Then he leaned way forward in his chair and actually jabbed a finger out directly at me, reaching very close to where I was sitting. “Change the subject, or this is going to get very ugly for you – right here, right now.”

Look, I'm almost twice his age and disabled. I’m a 54-year-old white woman who can only walk with the use of two canes.

Somehow, I managed to look directly and deeply into his now hate-filled and threatening eyes. I knew in that instant that if I said a single other thing to him – anything – he really might strike me. And, if he did, I also knew he’d never suffer a pang of conscience, even though any blow from him would injure me quite badly.

“No problem. I have my book,” I replied, my mouth suddenly very dry. As I looked away from him, not one person in the waiting room made eye contact with me. Turning to my book still on my lap, I found that my hands were shaking uncontrollably.

No one spoke the rest of the time we were pressed together. When it was finally my turn to see the doctor and we were alone in an examination room, she asked if I was OK. The receptionists, all women, had heard everything and had told her because they were upset. Despite how they had felt, not one of them had tried to stop the gay-bashing.

Even so, the doctor thanked me for speaking out. She said that, "a lone voice against hate and intolerance does make a difference." She said it puts a different energy into the minds of everyone present. She said she thought it was fear that had stopped some to speak up who probably had agreed with me; some that felt gay marriage was OK; or others who believed that homosexuality was nothing to be made fun of, and that gays should not be abused.

I found out later that the oh-so-thoroughly-furious-handsome man was...wait for it...a police officer! Just what we need, not only another homophobic-bigoted man – but one with a badge and a gun.

— The Curator


  1. Petra Boynton linked your blog post and I thought I'd comment.

    Firstly good for you. I'm glad despite everything you spoke up. I'm also glad you were polite too (I'm a bit of a jerk when I hear this kind of remark and you seemed remarkably polite even allowing for you clear fear).

    Secondly take comfort in knowing that around the world this kind of bigotry is decreasing. Slowly, painfully but it is decreasing.

    It's worth remembering those who were silent may choose not to spend time in the company of such an unpleasant person. Over time just by sheer natural selection the less socially acceptable people become they less likely they are to get dates, reproduce and pass on their nasty behaviors.

    Handsome as he may be; he may well not get the girl when she finds out what he's like. Here's hoping anyway.

    Best wishes from a Limey who endured the same comments when I lived in Ohio.

  2. Two words. WELL DONE!!!

    I will never forget something similar occurring during my teacher training. Yes, the teacher and some of his group of six A level students (the equivalent of high school juniors and seniors) spent a lesson, instead of studying the subject, making crude comments about homosexuality and anal sex. Some of the pupils took part, the others remained silent.

    I should have spoken out, but I was clinging onto the course by the skin of my teeth, constantly in trouble for not thinking the way they did. I should have spoken, since I got thrown out a few weeks later anyway. To be fair, it was just crude remarks rather than actual condemnations . . .

    Fortunately I don't think this would occur between a bunch of strangers in a hospital waiting room in the UK, which makes me realise how lucky we are!

    I am so sorry nobody stepped in to support you. I hope everybody in the room learnt something - I doubt the policeman did, but the others would have done.

  3. You were very brave, I fear I would not have been.

  4. I am in awe of your bravery. I would have done and said nothing. To quote Edmund Burke "All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Or good women.

  5. I feel very lucky to live in a country where those awful comments would not be tolerated, at least in a hospital waiting room (indeed, if someone had been threatened in the way you were, the police might have been called). It also makes me a little scared of the "average american", as I'm moving to the US for a year to study in about a week.

    Thank you for making such a brave stand. It's both inspiring that you did and awful that you had to. I like to think I'd have the same courage in that situation, although I'm not sure I would.

  6. Olly, im sad to say it, but that kind of thing happens all the time in the UK. You just have to be in the wrong place. Years of paintballing and working with people whose idea of a good "newspaper" is the Daily Star and on weekends they broaden their minds by buying The Sun has taught me that this sort of thing happens everywhere. We even get homophobic abuse on the rugby pitch, in front of an official who should be stopping it.

    Sadly I will admit that as a relatively fit healthy guy, I rarely had the plums to interupt this workplace banter about the fun things that people wanted to do to gays, except when i knew i had the respect of the colleagues around me. In a crowd of strangers I could never have done what the author did. To him my congratulations. To anyone who thinks this doesnt happen everywhere in the world, more fool you.

  7. Thank you. As a lesbian and as a human, thank you.

  8. Greetings! To everyone who has commented, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your sensitivity and whole-hearted support. I am also encouraged that many of you view this type of hate-talk-gay-bashing in public to be diminishing.

    As a woman, as a bisexual, as a human being, as an American and citizen of the world, IT MUST NOT BE TOLERATED! This planet has been twisted by hate and violence for far too long. It is past time for those of use who are reasonable, respectful, and in touch with what it means to be HUMAN to take the reigns for a bit, no?

    Again, thank you all. What happened really scared the hell out of me, so reading your comments made me feel worlds better!

  9. So sorry you had to go through that. You're awesome for being able to speak up.