To protect his privacy, the author of this piece requested that it be published anonymously.
In the wake of the shootings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, a national discussion arose about an aspect of race relations that many of us might not normally consider: The conversations which unfold behind closed doors, in which parents try to explain to their sons and daughters that unfair as it is, they might need to consider how they carry themselves in the world in order to keep themselves safe.
Think about that for a moment. Ponder how terrifying it must be for any parent to know that their child might be in danger simply because of the color of their skin, and how awful it must be to have that conversation.
Now imagine that you are a parent who perhaps should be having a similar conversation with your child, but you’re completely unaware of it. Because unlike the color of their skin, what makes them different from others might not be instantly recognizable. Or maybe what makes them different is something that the parents themselves find difficult to address.
When I was 20 years old, I stepped out of a bar and was kidnapped, stripped, beaten and left in a field miles from the closest town by someone offended by the fact that I was gay. I know his motivation because during an alcohol and rage-fueled rant, my assailant revealed that he’d been watching my friends and I “cavort” in the bar. Apparently, he’d been inside, watching us, for several hours, and while I won’t play arm-chair psychologist regarding his reason for being there, I will note that what he did by invading the one spot in which many people feel free to be themselves without fear of repercussion would be seen by some as a violation in and of itself.
At some point, he left the bar and waited for his prey — me — to do the same. The next several hours are something of a terrifying blur as I was held at knifepoint and forced to drive around town while he spewed angry words and threats. Eventually, we wound up in the aforementioned field where I was beaten, abused and robbed.
After he’d left — with most of my clothes and all of my belongings — I managed to flag down a passing police car. The officers bundled me in a blanket and took me to the station so that I could file a report. They were kind and considerate and helpful in every way . . . until I told them the name of the establishment I had come out of and they put together the final piece of the puzzle.
In that moment, with the word “gay” hanging unspoken in the air, everything changed, most especially their demeanor. It was as if in an instant, I’d gone from innocent victim to a person somehow deserving of the abuse I’d suffered. Where before, they had been urging me to file a report so that they could seek and, with luck, prosecute my attacker, they now suggested that it would be better “for everyone involved” if I considered letting the matter drop.
“Do you really want to make your family deal with,” said one of the officers, taking a long pause before finally settling on the word “this?” His tone left no doubt in my mind that moving forward would bring shame and humiliation raining down upon everyone I knew.
At the time, I was living with my parents, who no doubt suspected that I was gay, but it was not something any of us openly acknowledged. It was the proverbial elephant in the room around which we carefully negotiated lest we be forced to acknowledge it. They certainly were not prepared to talk to their son about the fact that being gay might mean he would be treated differently by people, let alone that people in positions of authority might be among those who would view him differently.
Instead of filing a report or pressing charges, I called friends who, without question, helped me cover up the bruises as best I could before fabricating a story that would become the façade behind which the truth would live for the rest of my life.
It’s worth noting here that this took place in the late ’80s, when the idea of gay marriage being legalized seemed as far-fetched as that of a black man being elected president, and before Matthew Shepherd’s death would spark a national conversation about hate crimes. And while by this time the rest of the world was pretty comfortable talking about sex, that was definitely not the case in my household. In fact, I often joked with friends that my parents were so uncomfortable with the topic that instead of sitting me down for a chat about the birds and the bees, they picked up some pamphlets at the State Fair, put them in an envelope, and shoved them under my bedroom door.
For a long time, I wondered if things might have been different had my parents and I had the ability to communicate about things which mattered, a skill we still lack to this day. While we have a good relationship, it hinges on our own version of the old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which allows them to remain blissfully ignorant of my personal life. If I hadn’t felt that the part of my life lived in shadow would, if dragged into the light, had shameful ramifications upon my family, perhaps I’d have pressed charges and seen my attacker brought to justice. Maybe I wouldn’t have allowed myself to be cowed into submission by the dismissive attitude of the police officers who clearly wanted nothing more to do with the case of a gay guy who probably got what he had coming because, you know… gay. Maybe I wouldn’t be writing this piece from behind a wall of anonymity built not for my protection, but theirs.
Now, it’s 2015 and we live in a world in which sometimes, those of us who live in liberal parts of the country can allow ourselves to believe that sexuality simply isn’t that big a deal any more. After all, Ellen has a talk show and same-sex marriage is rapidly becoming the law of the land.
Yet in many households, there’s a disconnect between the societal changes occurring just beyond the front door and the conversations being held around the dinner table. There remain far too many young people for whom open and honest discussions with their parents aren’t possible, and who, as a result, still find themselves navigating the minefield of life without their much-needed guidance.
Words matter, and when it comes to those in need of love and acceptance, leaving them unspoken may be the biggest crime of all.
Photo credit: “Talking On The Edge In Zurich” by Alexandre Dulaunoy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.