A few days ago, I went with my older sister to her college orientation. It was a really proud moment for me. My sister had always been the wild one, the bad ass, and had skipped college in favor of traveling around the country as a carnie, construction worker, street-kid and porn store employee, among other occupations. As her bookworm counterpart, it was exciting for me to see her pursue an education that I knew would give her the chance to put her crazy stories and life-experience to use.
At one point during the orientation, several student facilitators were called to the stage, one of whom sounded very effeminate and very confident. In the row in front of me, a young guy began laughing and turning his head away, looking over with a look of amused disgust to a guy a few seats over who was similarly snickering. Still laughing, both began whispering to the girl between them, all while the speaker continued on stage. I heard other tithers around the small auditorium, and I wished more than anything I could make it stop. I was furious and sad, knowing all too well what the speaker must be feeling from my own experiences as a queer man giving school presentations, working a sales job, etc. The guy on stage was blushing; he knew what was happening.
In an obvious attempt to diffuse the situation, a professor interrupted the speaker. “Can I stop you for a second?” she asked, “I just want to say, you are so well-spoken, and—we would love to have you in our drama club.” If she thought her voice of authority would quiet the whispers, she was wrong—probably because, when you don’t address the wrong-doers, you’re not showing any real authority at all.
I was upset. The speaker finished, and eventually my sister left with her smaller group. I knew I had to say something to the guy in front of me, even as the decision to do so was already making my heart pound in my ears, made my forehead sweaty, made my hands shake. I tried to force myself to breathe deeply, so my voice wouldn’t clam up. I tapped the louder guy on the back.
“I want you to know that when you laugh and act disrespectful while the gay guy is speaking, it makes you look really immature and not ready for college. Both of you,” I said to them, “and if you think you can get in front of a group of people and speak that well, then you should do it.”
“What the fuuuuck?” he said, his friends laughing, “Shut the fuck up– I’ll beat yo ass.” The girl sitting beside me, up till then silent, snickered.
“Do it,” I grinned at him, “I’ll get you put in jail.”
Obviously, I was scared and anxious—but in the past two years, I’ve forced myself to give up fear. You can be scared and fearless: that’s called courage. I’m not trying to posture as a hero here. I’m sharing this because I feel like often it seems too hard or too outrageous to call someone out if you don’t know them. Fear is most always selfish.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” and it’s true. Even at 22 years old, when I see many (most) people I know from high school on Facebook, I still have this bitter memory of them doing nothing as I was bullied to the point of suicidal depression in middle and high school for being perceived as gay. They heard what was said, they saw what was happening, and they did nothing. Many of them were nice to me, and some of us were even friends—but they did nothing.
Those that did, though, made a huge difference in my life. It didn’t stop the abuse, but it made me feel less alone and probably stopped me from killing myself. Do I think the (presumably) gay guy at the orientation was at risk of suicide? It’s impossible to ever know, but he seemed like an intelligent and high-achieving adult, so I doubt it. But getting degraded like he was still matters—and when this type of shit happens to me, it often ices me for a considerable time afterwards. Like something going mute inside. And it adds up, it lingers.
So, speak up. Don’t think it’s not your place. It is. We all live, mostly, as strangers to each other—but King’s words should just as well read “the silence of our allies.” As an ally, if you see someone black/LGBT/latino/female or femme/plus-size/etc. being degraded and say nothing, you are just as guilty as the silent friend.
And we’ll remember your silence.