Walking While Gay
The first time it happened to me, I was coming home late from work. I was tired and distracted, preoccupied with the case I was working on. I came up out of the subway station in Jackson Heights and began walking down Roosevelt Avenue.
Suddenly a guy I’m walking toward takes a big, full roundhouse swing at me, his fist coming within inches of my head. I hadn’t consciously noticed him, but later I figured I must have looked at him in a way that he thought I was checking him out.
The second time it happened was in Greenwich Village, of all places. I was walking down Sixth Avenue with a male friend, and a man walking the other way, just as we were passing each other, lashed a jab at me, landing hard on my left cheekbone.
The third and last time it happened, I was hit from behind on a crowded street in broad daylight. I never saw the guy. My glasses went flying, and the horn rim of one of the lenses broke when it hit the sidewalk. A kindly elderly man showed me where my glasses were – without them, I couldn’t see well enough to find them.
I once told an acquaintance the story, that I had been punched in the head for walking while gay. His skeptical reaction was to ask, how did I know the punchers punched because I was gay? The answer was that each of the three said, as he swung at me, either “Goddam faggot” or “Fucking faggot.”
All three occurred when I was in my twenties and thirties – more than twenty years ago. I would love to believe that it hasn’t happened to me since then because the world, or at least New York, is so much less homophobic now than it was then. But I know better. In fact, I suspect it hasn’t happened to me because as we get older we are perceived less sexually. And I suspect it is the sexuality of homosexuality that puts violence into the hatred of gay people.
The mass assassination in Orlando is certainly proof that homophobia has not receded from our society. The 49 are dead not because they were walking while gay but because they were dancing while gay and drinking while gay and living while gay and having a good time while gay. And their assailant did a whole lot worse than throw a punch.
Still, I think the phenomena are the same. Reporting since Orlando has taken note that victims of hate crimes today are more often gay than members of any other minority group. Most hate crimes fall below mass murder on the scale of criminality, but the fact remains that violence against gay people is commonplace.
Many Americans make a serious effort to disavow the homophobic violence of Orlando by attributing it to “radical Islam” and “radical Islamic terrorism.” And while Omar Mateen was a Muslim, and while he seems to have had an incoherent conglomeration of interests in Al Qaeda, ISIS and Hezbollah, it is by no means clear that “radical Islam” was his motivating inspiration, and it would hardly explain why he chose a gay nightclub as his target.
Mateen was apparently a violent man, his first wife alleging that he beat her badly. Reports suggest the possibility that he was fascinated with gay people. In my experience, many homophobes are fascinated with gay people – studying in exaggerated detail, for instance, the particulars of obscure sexual practices, almost as if to confirm their disgust and validate their hatred.
Many suspect that someone so homophobic and so fascinated with gay people must be gay himself. Certainly many of our most anti-gay politicians and clergymen over recent decades have been proved themselves to be gay. People who are fearful of being perceived to be gay often seem to have an impulse to prove their heterosexuality by the most public and strenuous displays of hatred and disgust for gay people.
My own theory is that men who are insecure in their own masculinity, in their own place in the world, are most prone to violence against both women and gay men. Violence is a way of asserting power and demonstrating superiority, and, maybe even more importantly, violence against a particular group is a way of proving that one is not a member of that group. Men who are secure in themselves do not need to prove their worth by demeaning, much less assaulting, other people.
Gay men are commonly regarded as less masculine than “real” men; more like women than men. Men who so regard gay men can be counted on to regard women as distinctly lesser than men. For men who think like this, the mere existence of gay men is an assault on their sense of security and well-being.