As much as I want to believe we live in a changed world, I can’t avoid evidence to the contrary.
Another senseless slaughter in the name of religion took place in Orlando two weeks ago. I mourn the victims who were simply out for an evening of dancing and camaraderie with friends old and new. Then the unthinkable happened, again.
In recent years, I’ve mourned schoolchildren at Sandy Hook, college students at Virginia Tech, moviegoers in Colorado, personnel workers in San Bernardino, Calif., military troops at Fort Hood, Texas, marathoners in Boston. But for me, Orlando is more frightening — not because it’s the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, but because of the target.
When I was young, I was afraid of being gay. I suspected it long before I knew there was a word for it or that others felt the same. Homosexuality seemed shameful, even sinful, and of course I confided my doubts to no one. I needed to be sure myself before admitting something I would never be able to take back.
Got something to say about a topic in the news? We’re looking for personal essays with strong opinions. Send your submission of no more than 400 words to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “My Take.”
During my adolescence, I learned what people thought about homosexuality from TV, movies, the newspaper, school and church. When I knew for certain that I was gay, I did not celebrate.
In the 1970s, my family lived in east Tennessee, near Knoxville. The schools I attended were geared to the relentlessly average, with no room for nonconformists of any stripe. By seventh grade, I’d learned fear. When the bullies came after me, I never dreamed things could or would get better. I certainly couldn’t ask for help from my teachers or my parents.
I dropped out of high school after my junior year with a sigh of relief. I started college instead, grateful for the opportunity to begin again in an environment where no one knew me. I thought I could keep my orientation a secret. I even joined the military in the pre-“don’t ask, don’t tell” days. What better place to hide? In the box next to the question “Are you a homosexual?” I lied and checked “no.” I endured 24 years of innuendo and fag jokes and could not speak up.
I’d reached my mid-30s before working up the courage to tell my parents and sisters. I’ve lost so many people from my life because they couldn’t forget or forgive that one thing about me. I was probably 40 before I learned to be content and embrace being gay.
Other people, however, are not content and do not want me to be.
My partner and I have been together nearly a decade and married the past three years. It’s worth celebrating. But one lesson the Air Force taught me is situational awareness: Look around. Be cautious. To the enemy, you are a target. Be careful whom you trust and never become complacent.
As much as I want to believe we live in a changed world, I can’t avoid evidence to the contrary. I’m shocked by the rabid hatred that some people still direct toward the gay community. Sometimes, even in our liberal Seattle, my spouse and I are afraid to walk down the street holding hands. In certain company — among strangers, mostly — when I hear a gay slur, I still keep my mouth shut. And hate myself for being a coward.
To some people, I will always be a faggot.
My heart sank when I heard that the victims in Orlando were gay (or gay-friendly) — as surely did the hearts of peaceful Muslims when they learned that the perpetrator was yet another radical, killing in the name of the Islamic State. Will Seattle be next? New York City? San Francisco? Knoxville, which now boasts several gay bars?
This most recent horrific assault reminds me that I will never be able to forget myself entirely. I can’t afford to become careless or let down too much guard.
The attack didn’t make me afraid. It just reminded me (again) that I’ve always been afraid. And probably always will be. Must be.