The summer that I was 15, I stood on a street corner in New York City and kissed a boy I liked. It was 72nd and Madison, and chic Upper East Side ladies in their sundresses and dads in conservative business suits passed us by. The air was balmy and fragrant, and the mid-evening sunlight dipped the streets in an amber glaze, and I felt every bit as entitled to that freedom—to be there, in public, kissing the boy I liked—as any of my straight friends. It's funny to think that that was nearly 10 years ago. Last week, a boy I liked reached for my hand, and reflexively, intuitively, I jerked it away.
In the last month or so in New York City, there have been six hate crimes targeting gay men, leaving several seriously injured and one dead: Mark Carson, killed by a gunman in the West Village, a stone's throw from the Stonewall Inn. The gunman called him a faggot before he shot him. That image feels like a relic from a long-gone era, from a time before I was born. Six hate crimes in New York City is more than coincidental. It feels like a constellation, and I'm in its orbit.
I feel lucky: I was never the victim of a hate crime, nor was I the victim of any hate, really, that targeted me for my sexuality. Often when my gay peers have discussed experiences with bigotry and intolerance—particularly those raised in conservative homes and communities—I've hung back, not feeling like I had any space to throw my hat into the ring. Now, at 24, I'm a gay man with no real experience or insight to share on the subject of homophobia, except perhaps the jokes I crack, glibly, about my own internalized self-loathing as it manifests in my petty dating foibles.
I came out when I was in the sixth grade at an arts school in crunchy Portland, Oregon, where I spent my childhood. It was 1999; I was 11 years old and precocious. (It feels odd, now, to think that I came out in the '90s.) I had a crush on a boy in one of my classes; an older girl told me that meant I was probably gay, and I figured she was right. I told my parents and my friends, all of whom were hyper-liberal. I can't remember the struggle being that raw, or feeling much shame about my sexual orientation, as my parents had normalized homosexuality effectively enough that it didn't feel wrong or aberrant. Throughout my adolescence, first at a large public school in Portland that was fairly conventional and then at a small, more uptight prep school in Manhattan, where I moved with my father following my parents' divorce, I remember that I was reasonably well-liked. I had a lot of friends, even if I had my share of struggles. But nobody ever called me a fag, at least not with malice.
I was never shoved into a locker, bullied, the target of violence. I was close with the popular girls, who liked having a gay confidante, and friendly with their boyfriends. I dated. I kissed and held hands with boys in public, sometimes, although I was perhaps a little cautious about it. I wasn't particularly flamboyant; I doubt I would have attracted much attention. Even while being affectionate with other men, I never felt really afraid or self-conscious. It was New York City, after all, where two men kissing was unlikely to raise any hackles; and especially being a tall, robustly built young man, I felt entitled to be exactly who I was without fearing the consequences. I was smug, even, that I wasn't flamboyant enough to be a target. (I wasn't sophisticated enough to realize that assimilation wasn't necessarily worth celebrating.)
I doubt that my experience was typical, since I had the extraordinary good fortune of left-leaning parents and supportive friends in cities that are putatively safe and tolerant, and I know there are men and women, cisgender and transgender, my age and younger who have been conditioned to fear violence every day as a quotidian reality because of who they are or who they love. But that was never me. As the product of the first generation allowed to take for granted the acceptance of those around us, I lived more or less insulated from the phobic aggression faced by those born even 10 years before me. This millennial privilege lulled me into an anodyne sense of security that was shaken for the first time this month, when I began to feel unsafe in New York City, my home, where I'd always felt more relaxed standing on the sidewalk, even in an unsavory neighborhood, than anywhere else in the world.
The couple getting beat up near Penn Station — that rattled me. I lived in Chelsea for two years and often walked home from Hell's Kitchen late at night: I could visualize it, the corner where the assault had taken place, and I imagined it happening to me, with any of the men with whom I'd walked that same street, platonic or otherwise. And then there was another story. Then another. In neighborhoods where I ate at restaurants and went to bars. In neighborhoods where I was publicly affectionate with men. And I was scared.
Part of it, surely, is realizing that the false invincibility of youth that I'd carried for years had dissolved as I'd grown older, which is probably healthy and normal; part of it, too, is the media's tendency to overreport anything that can be organized as enough of a pattern to ignite hysteria, and the quickness with which information spreads now, in 2013, as I sit at my desk staring at Twitter all day, watching the same stories recycled from different angles, all those noisy voices straining to be heard.
And there's something that feels shameful and self-involved about the impulse to take a tragedy and bring it into the realm of the personal—the idea that these tragedies are about me, somehow, when of course they aren't. Still, I always felt, perversely, like it was some rite of passage that the collective gay universe had experienced, and one from which I'd been disconnected: the experience of being hated for being gay and the attendant threat of violence. I was privileged to never encounter that, I knew, and I was embarrassed by how blessed I'd been when so many others before me had suffered.
But that fear: I felt it for the first time last week, when the guy I was dating reached for my hand and I didn't want to give it to him. Felt that pit of dread prickling in my stomach, felt the eyes of strangers boring into my shoulders, felt anxiety tingling at the nape of my neck. I wanted to be proud and a little bit brazen; also, I didn't want those things enough to risk injury or death for them. So I interlocked my fingers with his for a moment, because I didn't want him to feel slighted.
And then I put my hands in my pockets, because I was wise enough to be afraid. And I missed the freedom of fearlessness, the freedom of not knowing any better, the freedom of taking for granted what I'd never earned.