Any other day, I would have taken it as a compliment—a little boost to my aging ego.
I looked up from my phone because I could feel someone looking at me. Diagonally in front of me on the train, a fairly attractive, straight-looking, masculine-appearing man was looking right at me.
For me, these moments are few and far between; but instead of feeling flattered, I was immediately stricken with fear—but refused to break the eye contact I had returned until he did. You see, I had done nothing to attract his attention—save the fact that I was wearing my trademark Love Conquers Hate t-shirt with the rainbow heart along with a [cute] white jacket and he had to look backward at me to see me. I want to say he got on the train well after I did so I don’t think he even saw me get on and sit down. Why–? Why was he staring at me? I’m not talking about a glance; I’m talking about full-on, looking right at me—expressionless if not somewhat…is my mind making this up?…menacing. All I know is that he was not looking at my fresh white kicks or admiring my man-bun.
I met his eyes and would not yield until he did. And over the course of the next five stops, I would catch him periodically looking back at me. (WTH!) I was not getting the he’s checking me out vibe—and even if he had been, this had long passed the point of mildly flattering.
As he put his phone in his pocket, gathered his backpack and got up, I watched him walk toward the exit of the train, only realizing later I had been holding my breath.
He stood there, waiting to exit once the train stopped at Millbrae—still alternating between glancing at his phone and looking back at me.
And there in that moment, three things hit me–like a mack truck.
First—I have to confess my own racism: would it have made any difference in how I felt if he had been white? I do not know what race he was—mixed-race, Latino, perhaps Armenian—but I do wonder how that subconsciously affected me. I would like to think that no matter what race the person was I would feel uncomfortable; but racism overcomes me so stealthily, so insidiously that I make judgements without even realizing I’ve done it. Undoing this learned response is a lifelong task.
Second, the notion that I am in any way safe as a gay man was exposed as the myth that it is and has always been. In these days since Orlando, it is a dawning reality that we as LGBT people have never really been safe. I now realize that it has been pure restraint—and for some morality, or a combination of both—that has prevented people from catalyzing into action the bitter vitriol spewed forth from the caustic mouths of religious leaders like First Baptist Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress and Focus on the Family leader James Dobson and elected officials like Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and the GOP presumptive nominee Donald Trump. Orlando was a pressure breach on a nationwide pipeline system ready to bust all to hell at any moment. Is the tipping point near?
Since coming out in 2006 (and heck, even before I officially did it), I have lived openly and without much fear ever at all—from the small town north-central Texas I grew up and raised my kids in to the big city of Dallas to the easy-to-be-queer mecca that is the San Francisco Bay Area. I walk to the train, through the city, in less-than-safe areas at less-than-ideal times, oblivious to how much hate there is around me at any given moment. For me—those days of walking around without fear, of dancing in a gay club, of walking around in my typical flamboyant appearance and doing so without fear are over. To quote a friend of mine, I am now woke.
Any sense that because of marriage equality, gays and lesbians are now equal to heterosexuals in this country—and therefore superior to those in our LGBT alphabet family—is a complete fallacy; foolish are they who think we have arrived. Gays and lesbians are just as damned, just as hated, just as reviled as everyone else those with the power of moral dominance have dictated society loathe.
And finally, for a brief moment, I felt a shred–just a shred–of what people of color, transgender people, women, experience almost every day of their lives. My God—it hit me like a ton of bricks—is this what they feel like all the time?
On the train, walking down the street, being seated at a restaurant…
People looking at them with disdain…
Like they have a bad taste in their sour mouths because of you.
(Some who you know if they had a stick or a gun or an assault rifle….)
Constantly looking over their shoulder, wondering why that person is sneering or leering…
Never safe, never relaxed, always calculating an escape or an aversion.
I left the train station feeling stunned. Feeling relieved that he went one way and I another. Feeling ashamed that I ever felt so haughty, immersed in my faux privilege when my own sisters and brothers have lived in this fear all along.
Orlando has changed nothing and yet everything has changed, bringing into sharp relief just how hated we and others in the LGBTQIA, et al community really are. I don’t know that I will lose this sense of heightened awareness about my environment or whether I even should. And I certainly won’t let it keep me down or from enjoying life. But my Pollyanna outlook is gone.
But if Orlando brings about humility on the part of those of us who have typically moved throughout society with blithe impunity then perhaps we will gain some empathy and become the valiant defenders of others and societal reconstructionists we should have been all along.
Friends—be safe out there.
 I realize that these descriptors of what a “straight” and “masculine” man looks like are charged. I can only offer that they are my own personal definitions of what these traits are and do not intend them to be any kind of standard for what makes a man look straight or appear masculine or imply that all gay men look a certain kind of way or that gay men themselves are not also masculine. As my Ethics professor was fond of saying: It’s complicated.