“Look at this faggy dyke.”
The words were spat almost in my ear as my girlfriend and I walked down a busy Chicago street on our way to see a concert last summer. The words were said by a man who had nothing better to do than stand around and make pronouncements about people walking by, so maybe I shouldn’t have taken it personally. I wanted to laugh it off—“What does ‘faggy dyke’ mean, anyway?” But the tears came too, stinging at the corners of my eyes as I thought to myself, I shouldn’t have worn long shorts; I shouldn’t have cut my hair this way.
It was my hair, I think, that encouraged a similar remark just a couple of weeks later. My girlfriend and I were out for a walk again, this time in our own neighborhood—a neighborhood we’d chosen in a suburb of Madison. We bought our house here less than a year ago, going against our longing to be in the Willy Street or Tenney Park neighborhoods, those welcoming enclaves of gays and hippies and people who don’t care if you’re gay or a hippie. We opted for the suburb because it’s close to work; it has quiet streets and huge backyards.
We were less than two blocks from our house, walking and chatting, enjoying the warm evening and the soft hum of the cicadas. A car pulled up to the intersection, bass thumping and rattling its windows. As the car revved and tore away from the stop sign, the driver yelled out of his open window, “GAAAAAY!” We hadn’t even been holding hands.
I’ve worn my hair like this for a while, in a style I’d convinced myself was short in an Emma-Watson-with-a-pixie-cut way, but I guess it’s really just short in a butch way. I have to assume that’s what people notice. But maybe it’s the way my face lights up when I look at my girlfriend. Or maybe it’s some innate part of me that I don’t see when I look in the mirror.
I used to be proud that no one had ever yelled at us from their cars in Wisconsin. My girlfriend is from Los Angeles, and you’d think it would be even better there—that gay is OK in a place like California. But it was worse. One time when I went to visit, we dealt with this every day I was there. Construction workers calling out, “Can I get in the middle?” People honking as they drove by, yelling, “Dyke!” This was before we learned to stop holding hands in public.
A few days after it happened in our neighborhood, I came across a YouTube video by Davey Wavey titled “Called a Faggot by Strangers.” The description read, “What do you do if someone calls you a faggot? Especially if you are gay? What is the best way to respond to homophobia that is expressed outwardly and openly in your direction?”
I leaned in eagerly as I clicked “play,” hoping Davey would have the answer for me—the perfect comeback, or at least something I could tell myself that would keep those remarks from bringing tears to my eyes. But Davey didn’t have advice—in fact, he was asking viewers to tell him what to do in those situations. “What’s the best thing you can do or say if someone calls you a faggot?” he asked. “Leave your answer in the comments.”
Well, I had to stop reading after comment number three. Anyone who’s ever watched a YouTube video knows that the comments can be immature at best and vile at worst on the most unremarkable of videos—I’m sure you can imagine how awful they were on this one.
So, Davey and I don’t have the perfect comeback. But I want you to know you’re not alone if this happens to you, and I want straight people to know the kinds of discrimination we face in our daily lives, even in a liberal city. When I told a straight friend about getting called names while I was out in Los Angeles, she was incredulous. “People really still do that?” she asked.
Unfortunately, they do. In some ways, it could be seen as a minor annoyance—the sort of thing that happens to anyone who’s different. And we have so many more important things to worry about, like fighting for the right to marry and legal protections for our families and trying to prevent serious crimes against us.
But still. These hate-filled words make us want to grow out our hair and stop holding hands with the person we love. They eat away our sense of self, of wellbeing, whether we’re 15 years old in the high school locker room or 30 years old on our way home from happy hour.
I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness, and recently started reading the book Forgiveness by Dr. Sidney B. Simon and Suzanne Simon. One concept that really stood out to me was, “You hold your ground by holding on to the pain you suffered … by not forgiving them for what they have done. The ultimate irony is that in many cases, they aren’t even aware of your misery, and while you are turning yourself inside out, they don’t feel a thing.” Someone who called me “dyke” out his car window a couple of years ago probably doesn’t even remember doing it, but when I replay that memory in my head, I’m giving him the power to hurt me again and again. One response, then, lies within ourselves. We can work to let go of that hurt and break the “replay” cycle in our minds.
But the other answer is to keep holding hands. To keep our hair short if we want it short—or grow it out, but not because some small-town teenager made us feel bad. If we all choose to live authentically and proudly, then one day we’ll be no more remarkable than any straight couple walking down the street.
Kelly Murray is a copy editor both for Our Lives and in her day job. Kelly also loves to read and write, and she hopes to complete a novel someday. When she’s not thinking about words, Kelly enjoys spending time with her partner of five years, who makes her laugh every day.