Yesterday, my husband and I took a bus to the Washington Ethical Society, a local progressive church, to hear Holocaust survivor Estelle Laughlin give a talk about her childhood before, during, and after her internment in the Majdanek and Czestochowa concentration camps.
We boarded the bus a block from home and filed to the back, where two seats were available for us to sit side by side. I asked John if he wanted to sit by the window - he's very curious and prefers the window seat - but he declined so I could enjoy the view. I draped my arm around his shoulders and gazed at the passing buildings; he leaned into me while he wrote an email on his phone; we passed many minutes in the gentle hum of the cool bus, sunlight streaming in, everything very much at peace.
Then a man boarded and walked towards a seat directly behind us. He visibly recoiled when he saw us, and as he passed we heard the chilling, unmistakable epithet: "faggot."
This word has a profound effect on me. When I hear it, I grow cold and straighten my back and fix my jaw and harden my heart. I sink into myself and sound becomes far off, muffled. It's as if someone has found the remote control to my brain and changed the channel to a horror movie.
The man, perhaps mentally unstable or drunk or both, kept on. Much of what he said was so incoherent, I couldn't repeat it. I was also almost literally petrified - my gut response to being called a faggot causes a stymying mix of fear, anger, and hate - and, for a few seconds, wondered whether this man could possibly be saying these things to me, or whether he was just ranting indiscriminately.
As a torrent of vile words and disgusting accusations ("What the hell are you doing touching each other?") poured over my shoulders, anger thawed my frozen body and I turned to John. Stupefied, I asked if he had said anything to the man, just trying to understand why this total stranger was even talking to us. John shook his head, mirroring my disbelief.
Anger melted the last of my fear, and I turned around. The man, still ranting, averted his eyes as I asked, "What the fuck is wrong with you? We're just sitting here! Are you out of your mind?"
The rambling hate speech persisted, but his tone morphed into a weird defensiveness ("I've got a dick, but I'm not doin' that, faggots!"). In the midst of streams of unbelievable accusations and derogatory terms, he was making himself out to be a victim of our "evil ways."
I turned to John. "C'mon. We're going to the front."
We stood. John turned and glowered at the man. I caught the vaguest hint that John might do something - he later confirmed it took all his self-control not to spit in the man's face - so I grabbed his shoulder firmly and led him to the front of the bus, separating him from our verbal attacker with my body. "Y'all are gonna die of AIDS!" he screamed as we walked away.
But John and I were not about to sit quietly. Even if we had wanted to, the ranting man shouted louder and louder after us so the entire bus could hear his vitriol. John marched up the aisle of the moving bus, stepped over the yellow line, leaned into the driver, and said, "You need to do something about that sonofabitch back there."
The driver had clearly heard some commotion but was unprepared for John's forcefulness. John went on, "He is spewing hateful, bigoted, homophobic garbage at us and we are not going to stand for it. You need to get that man off this bus right now or I'll report this to the police and the Metro." I could see John meant to go on, but the driver just nodded and slowed the bus to the curb.
John and I took seats across from each other at the front of the packed bus. The driver stopped the bus, unbuckled, and walked toward the ranting man - who was still shouting - like he was walking into enemy fire. He addressed the homophobe by name ("Probably a regular," John suggested later) and asked the man to leave the bus. He didn't make any kind of speeches or appeals or arguments, he just very simply told the man to leave.
To my surprise, that's exactly what happened. Our assailant made his way off the bus - not quietly and not quickly, mind you, but he did go. As he left, he made a final plea to the other passengers - something about how he lives in the real world, and not in gay world, and he shouldn't be subjected to this kind of thing because gay people think they're special (or something like that; it was pretty hard to follow) - but in vain. The rest of us wriggled uncomfortably in our seats until the driver shut the doors and drove off, leaving the man standing on the curb, still ranting at us.
We went back to the rear of the bus where we could sit together. I draped my arm over John's shoulders again. He took his phone back out, but I don't think he did anything with it. Our heart rates slowed as the bus proceeded down the sunny, tree-lined streets of northwestern Washington.
A few minutes later, a man sitting in front of us turned. Middle-aged with lively eyes, he said conspiratorially, "That man was a ticking time bomb!" We laughed and he turned back around for the rest of the drive.
We got off at our stop, making a point to leave from the front exit so we could thank the driver for his professionalism. He was gracious but nonchalant. We made it to the church, heard the speaker, and went about our day.
I want to believe this is a happy story, a metaphor for a culture embracing its LGBT siblings and rejecting homophobia. We live in a world where two gay men can complain to their bus driver about hate speech, and the driver will kick the homophobe - and not us - off the bus. Fellow passengers will share our discomfort, not his. They will sympathize with our humiliation and roll their eyes at his.
That's not to say that I wish ill on my enemies or revel in their suffering. On the contrary, it saddens me that anyone would choose hate and cause their own isolation. But I am likewise heartened that someone's choice to hate is seen as just cause for social disapproval.
Daily life unfolds in a series of improvisations, often with strangers, and anyone who has studied it will tell you that the first rule of improvisation is to always say yes. I am happy and grateful to live in a world that says yes to me and my family a little bit more every day.
DC Metro bus image via flickr.