October 29th, 2003: The Day I Took Back The Night From A Homophobic Street Harasser
"Do you wanna suck my dick?”
The question played through my head like a skipping record as I stared down the guy in front of me, the words swirling around for a moment, then landing with a thud that echoed all the way down Main Street. “Wanna suck my dick, my dick, dick, dick…"
I paused for a moment and waited. "What?" he asked, startled.
"Do you want to suck my dick?" I asked again firmly. Suddenly, he went from aggressive and intimidating to straight-up dumb.
I've never quite understood homophobia. Arachnophobia—you could get bit by a poisonous spider, and you could die. Hydrophobia—you could go swimming in rough waters and you could drown and DIE. Acrophobia—you could fall off a tall building AND YOU COULD DIE! Homophobia? What are people afraid is going to happen?
“Look out Daphne, here comes one with a pair of scissors!"
“Honey, I just want to do your bangs...”
" Rick! There's another one coming! Shut the front door! "
“You better watch it sister-friend! Once I get into that living room I am going to coordinate the shit out of that couch and those throw pillows!"
That doesn't sound so bad, right? But still, whether I am online at the grocery store waiting to purchase my vanilla almond milk, getting off a plane in any state besides New York and California, or picking up my nephew from pre-school, people often look at me with fear in their eyes. Or, more confusingly, straight up anger.
A few weeks ago my fiancée, Eva, and I were leaving a restaurant. We made our way to the car, and as usual, I opened her door for her. As I closed it, I turned around and spotted a man sitting at an outside table, staring me down. He looked at me like he wanted to fucking end me. A look of pure outrage burned on his face.
"Oh, now what do we have here? You two think you can just walk around flaunting your, your, your... POLITENESS for everyone to see? Showing off your, your, your.... ROMANTIC GESTURES! I'm not gonna have my son growing up in a world where he has to watch two women openly RESPECTING each other!"
Wow! My chivalry must have scared the shit out of him. Perhaps he noticed his wife silently mouthing to us, “Take me with you!” I wonder what would have happened if he'd seen me give Eva a bouquet of flowers and a hallmark card?
"You just gave another woman a daffodil?” His face turns beet red, smoke comes out of his ears until he can't take it anymore! “I'm gonna fucking kill you!!" And he explodes into a pile of angry dust right before our eyes.
When Eva and I took our first vacation together, she got to witness my powers of intimidation first hand. We exited the plane in North Carolina, and began the walk through the terminal, holding hands on our way to pick up our rental car. From every corner, people stopped to gawk at us with furrowed eyebrows and perplexed stares as we passed through, some losing their footing as they came to the end of the moving walkway.
"Wow!" I exclaimed, "These people must think I am REALLY attractive. They can't keep their eyes off me! They must recognize me from one of my YouTube videos!"
"You have such a positive way of handling the stare-down." Eva remarked. “I don't know how you do it.”
At this point, I had grown used to the incessant looks of disgust. It had been happening to me since my teen years. Southern beach towns just added a special concentration of bigots. Gaggles of college-aged white boys, sneering, cat calling, yelling out "dyke" or "lezzbeeeyown." When I was younger I put my head down and quietly went on my way, letting their disapproval of me transform into my own shame for who I was. But not anymore.
Everything changed for me on the evening of October 29, 2003. I was in my last year of school at SUNY New Paltz, a granola-crunchy liberal arts college in upstate New York. The school that made headlines when the women's studies department held a conference called "Revolting Behavior" (which could have been described as a traveling sex show teach-in sponsored by Toys in Babeland). The dean didn't know he was signing off on a live vibrator exhibit demonstrating the best techniques used for a woman to orgasm. This felt right up my alley. I got involved with the lesbian avengers and joined the LGBTQ Alliance on campus.
A graphic design major, I designed posters for “Take Back the Night” rallies and helped organize the first transgender awareness conference. We marched. We rallied. Lesbian, straight, bi, transgressive women, we stood in solidarity, bravely facing more lesbian, straight, bi, transgressive women. We organized and marched and we spoke out, but only to folks who were already interested in what we were doing.
There was still that small population of athletic, beer guzzling frat boys on campus, who didn't give a fuck about the stupid bitches making noise on the quad. They could just walk a different way to the food court. It never occurred to me then that what we were doing in the sheltered grounds of the school property was not necessarily making a difference for us on the outside. Until that night on October 29th, when I walked home from the bar and everything changed.
Like any small college town, there were genred bars. Oasis was the hip jazz cafe that served sake on Thursdays nights. Bacchus was for the post-graduate crowd that claimed to be over the bar scene but still wanted to drink, Snugs was for the hardcore alcoholics.
Then there was Foley's, the one place in town that had been magically relocated from the set of Animal House. That was where all the polo shirt and plaid short-wearing frat boys hung out.
Anytime I went out to the bar to meet my friends, I always made sure I never walked past Foley's alone on my way home. Even if I was parked on the same side, and it was more convenient, as soon as I saw that green shamrock, I made a jump to the other side of the street, crossing back over only after I hit the Sunoco station. I just didn't want to take the chance. I didn't want to have a nice night ruined by the harsh comments of some fucking drunk assholes.
But for some reason, on that particular evening, something in me snapped and I, Julie Novak, decided to TAKE BACK MY MOTHERFUCKING NIGHT. I refused to make myself small anymore. I was done, and I didn't care what happened. I was ready to fight homophobia, and, if fate would have it, ready to die. “I'm gonna do it!" I said to myself.
As I started to pass Foley’s on the opposite side of the street, the bullshit started.
“What the fuck is THAT?” asked a guy wearing a green polo shirt. He was surrounded by his crew of 3 or 4, all wearing shirts that had sports teams logos or cartoon characters. “Is that a guy or a girl? I don’t know what the fuck that thing is…” I felt my chest start to tighten. “I don’t know if I should call you a fag or a dyke.”
Everything I had been holding back for years suddenly came bubbling up to the surface. All the years of silently putting up with the the heart-piercing, debasing verbal assaults from guys like this. I was done. Before I knew it I found myself across the street, face to face with the guy in the polo shirt. Looking straight into his eyes, I asked him, in all seriousness, “Do you want to suck my dick?”
I can’t tell you what happened next as time seemed to stand still and things got really weird. My question threw him off his game. He wasn't expecting it and by the end of the conversation all of his friends had gathered around to hear the words of the enigmatic lesbian messiah and he suggested we meet at that same spot the following week to exchange mix tapes. I couldn't believe it.
We shook hands, and then I turned around to continue on home. As soon as they were out of my line of vision, my heart started pounding and I ran as fast as I could to my car, just in case they changed their minds and went back to thinking that lynching me was a better idea.
Once I was safely home, I looked back on the event in wonder. Telling that guy to suck my dick didn’t result in a deep conversation about homophobia or bullying or politics, but we did end up talking about mutual things we were interested in, and for a little while that night, we both shared the streets peacefully.
Nowadays I handle things differently. A few weeks ago I got stared down by a guy outside a convenience store as I was walking to my car. With his eyes, he was telling me to get in my car and drive away. He expected his intimidating glare would render me silent and, defeated. Instead, I set my bag down and very deliberately walked over to him and got right up close to his face.
“Hi! How’s it going?” I asked cheerfully with a big smile on. “I’m Julie. I saw you staring so I thought I would introduce myself!”
This act of very forthright politeness and closeness totally disarmed him and suddenly HE was searching for a way to escape the situation simply because I decided to actually connect with him.
This is the way I choose to make my voice heard and not disappear, and I realize now that I don’t have to be an asshole just because someone else is. I hold on to my integrity while holding out my authentic self with dignity and pride. This is what has made the biggest difference.