There are no safe spaces

There are no safe spaces.

Boys at my high school jumped the gay kid, Michael, after he came out. They teased him relentlessly. They hit him. They tripped him. They drove him from school.

I was the next in line when it came to queer hatred. They called me faggot and queer and gay boy. Once, someone threw an open container of milk at me as I walked through the full cafeteria. I was soaked, my jacket ruined. The Principal told me that I had brought it on myself.

‘What do you want me to do?’ the good, Mormon community member scowled at me from across his desk. More than half my life has has passed since then but I still remember.

There are no safe spaces.

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As a grown man, the hate can be constant. My one haven is home — West Hollywood, a gay neighborhood carved from the heart of Los Angeles. In the seven years I’ve lived there, I’ve only been derisively called a faggot on two occasions, both by teenagers.

But before I moved to an urban setting, I taught in California Public Schools and lived in a large commuter community in suburban LA County. At least once a week I was called faggot, queer, pervert, or in some other way made to feel uncomfortable in my queer skin. This was always in public spaces; parking lots, the mall, the grocery store, coffee shops, restaurants.

It was so common that I felt normalized to the jeers. I barely heard them. I’d wave them off. At the time, I felt that I couldn’t affect the behavior of strangers; so I ignored them.

Work was worse. Children regularly tossed homophobic epithets, both in my direction and broadly to each other on campus. Each year at least one parent would pull their child from our district because they believed people like me shouldn’t be allowed to teach.
Teachers and administrators were useless in their support. Once, when I filed a formal complaint, the teachers on the task force became angry with me for making a big deal out of ‘a little name-calling’ (as if they let a child call them faggot without consequences).

There are no safe spaces.

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My friends and I made places for ourselves at the local gay bar, the book store, and my apartment. We were a cohort of camaraderie that helped each other exist in the world that didn’t want us.

Even together, there was no guarantee of security. At coffee shops, the common assault was from good Christians calling us sinners, shielding their children, or worse, saying they’d pray for us. At the book store, it wasn’t uncommon to be called a faggot or dyke if we lingered too long before the single shelf of queer books (my entire literary access to queer publications).

I can recall two shootings at the only gay bar in town, unabashedly named The Back Door, though I’m certain there were more. One happened during the day, a bit of drive by vandalism. The other happened when I was there – a couple of shots our direction from the parking lot. No one was hurt. I don’t think the police believed/wanted to believe that it happened.

There are no safe spaces.

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When we stayed in Fairbanks, Alaska, my boyfriend and I slept in separate beds. There were rooms with larger beds available but for our safety he chose a room with twins.

Rarely have I ever expressed affection to another man in public. Derision has even follow in private settings: I had once been told that my gentle touch, on the shoulder or thigh of another man, made others in the room uncomfortable — the same touch straight couples so easily take for granted.

I’ve refused affection in public more often then I’ve accepted. I like to think that’s a matter of taste and propriety; but if I leave out fear in this equation, I’d be lying.

There are no safe spaces.

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When I woke that Sunday, a mind full of the upcoming PRIDE parade and a new project, I was appalled, but not surprised, to see that a gunman had killed twenty at a gay night club in Orlando.

Through the morning, I followed the story, weeping with the queer community as we learned that twenty was in reality forty-nine with more than fifty others injured. I stood beside my local community as we marched for PRIDE, signs silently echoing the loss in Orlando.

And even those moments were wrought with danger: a man headed to the event had been arrested hours before, his car laden with an arsenal and explosives: the worst members of Christianity represented their community with signs and bullhorns proclaiming that “God hates Fags.”

There are no safe spaces.

Indeed, since the massacre at Pulse, Orlando, politicians, pastors, and everyday Americans have proclaimed that the victims deserved their deaths for simply being queer (or queer adjacent).

These examples are a small taste of constant messaging of hate and rejection I’ve encountered in my experience as a privileged, educated, queer, white man in The United States. Is it any wonder that the Orlando shooter was motivated by a mix of self-hate, homophobia, and religious confusion? It isn’t to me for that is a world I’ve always known.

There are no safe spaces.

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Messages of rejection, hate, anger, violence, cruelty, and religion are so deeply intertwined in culture and belief that simply choosing to be queer is a radical act.

Before we know we are queer, we are told that we are hated. Before we have sexual desires, we are taught they are wrong. Before we understand our own bodies we are limited to the gender binary.

There is a long and rich history of queer humanity — from Alexander, who briefly united to world; to Richard, Lionhearted, who inspired it; to Alan Turing, who, though he managed to save the world, was ultimately persecuted and destroyed for being queer.

I had to hunt for my heroes and role models because they were hidden from me. History books didn’t mention them, or worse, erased their queerness.

There are no safe spaces.

To change what is, we must be willing to change the way we are. That starts with what we say to children and how we act in front of them. If we want to stop young men from killing others we must embody compassion for all.

In the absence of compassion, hate is allowed to grow.

There are no safe spaces. So let’s make them.
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K Ryan Henisey is a creative professional living in Los Angeles. His #ArtToEndViolence works have appeared in locations throughout Southern California, the titular pieces winning an Award of Excellence at the California State Fair, 2015.

Pulse is painted ink with minimal acrylic and sharpie on 140 lb paper, 42×42 inches.

Forty-nine monarch butterflies are shown emerged from a glowing heart. The artist narrative above is scrawled along a neon, Orlando skyline. The names of those killed during the massacre are written in red, blue, and black.

Pulse will be on display at Gallery 825 in West Hollywood as part of Los Angeles Art Association’s special Out There show celebrating the cities Pride festivities.

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