I was on a train—a CTA Blue Line train—with my then girlfriend. Maybe this was five years ago. I was in my late 20s and my girlfriend was much younger, just out of college, and I’d just returned from two weeks on the road. My ex had ridden a westbound train to O’Hare Airport to meet me so we could ride an eastbound train back home together.
We were three stops in, standing across from one another on a packed train, chatting about my flight and her train ride when I leaned over and kissed her. It was a close-mouthed peck, like imagine clinking two PEZ dispensers’ heads together. It was that level of intimacy. The moment we clinked, a woman sitting at the other end of the car yelled out, “Stop that! This is a train! Keep that at home!” She rushed toward us while she yelled, dodging other passengers on her way. She stopped right in front of us, looked us right in the face, and told us we were disgusting.
The woman was probably in her mid-60s, and although I can be a fighter, I wasn’t going to fight her. I keep my fistfights involving AARP members in Schwarzenegger movies where they belong. I did, however, stand my ground / not back down. (Songwriting credit: Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. See how easy that was, Sam Smith?)
I told her to get away from us. I told her we were people, human beings, and that our kiss had harmed no one. And, in the end, I probably also told her to fuck off since that’s kind of my specialty as a response to harassment. My fiancée tells me I need to cool it telling harassing strangers to fuck off. That it escalates the situation. She’s probably right. But it’s exactly the sentiment I always feel in the moment. Fuck. Off.
For months afterward I thought about that woman from the train, how she’d yelled in our faces for two stops, and then simply gotten off the train, as normal as can be. How quickly she’d probably forgotten us. How unfazed she’d been by my response, and how strongly she’d clearly felt that she could do something to change us, to change her having to share the world with us.
And I thought about everything that happens on a subway train—I have literally seen a drunk college dude take a shit on a subway train—and how hot and rat-filled and Cheetos-dusted and affordable and convenient the subway is. There aren’t great train rides—subway cars smell like gyros dipped in provolone and nobody riding ever uses their damn earbuds. The subway is one of those places where we aim to coexist peacefully and agree to marvel at the fact that we’re jamming through the Earth fairly quickly and won’t have to pay for parking on the other side.
Amid shit, rats, gyros, and shitty rat gyros (rats are terrible at making gyros), we were what that woman couldn’t handle? We were what grossed her out? Come on now. It didn’t make me feel great about myself.
Being screamed at on a train isn’t the worst thing that has ever happened or that could have happened. I realize, dear readers, that some of you are mumbling that aloud to yourselves as you casually munch M&Ms in your cubicles. You are correct. It’s not the worst thing that has ever happened to a gay person or any other person. It’s not even the worst thing that has happened to me.
The worst thing that has ever happened to me is that sometimes people don’t prefer my writing and leave a mean comment below a column and then I just get so sad and I cry and I quit because if I can’t make each person in the world happy while talking about my experience, what’s the point?!
Actually, great question there, Cam. I’ll take it from here. The point is to share your experience so you can talk about what’s real for you. Why does it matter what’s real for me? It doesn’t. Not specifically. But humans have always told stories, shared experiences, and tried to circle in on truth. It’s most of what we spend our time on this planet doing and the reason so many folks spend their Sundays with Netflix or the Bible. We want to hear stories. We want to find answers. We cling to old stories, but we also look for new ones. That’s why most people who read the Bible also watch movies.
A woman yelling at me on a train isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to me.
The worst thing was realizing I was gay while attending a Catholic college that wouldn’t allow sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy, which vowed to kick gay students out. And it was having the first person I came out to—my best friend and roommate—refuse to speak to me for a month and tell me that I would burn in hell. And it was feeling responsible for the massive strain my coming out caused in my conservative, Catholic family. And it was repeatedly getting blackout drunk so I could sleep with a man and attempt to straighten myself out. And it was lying to people for years about who I was after I figured it out. And it was breaking off friendships and not allowing anyone to really know me so that I wouldn’t have to lie. And then finding the courage to date and love women and being screamed at on the street or the train or a bunch of other places for it.
I’m lucky. I figured out that my being a lesbian wasn’t harming anyone—not even myself—and that I’d been doing more harm by denying it. I had the time to wait out difficulty with family and friends. I grew the confidence to date and not to take guff from silly ladies on trains. I saw the benefits of honesty, and I met many people who helped me along the way. I’m proud of myself for getting through those things and I wouldn’t take them back. Tritely: They made me the person I am today and I like the parts of me that they made. But it was not a funfetti cakewalk.
Perhaps there are gay folks out there whose lives don’t include these sharp-ass milestones; the pals I’ve talked to all hit them in one way or other. These are the experiences that make me want to cauliflower my ears closed whenever a straightdude comic jokes about that one time he was called a faggot. I don’t even like typing that word. It’s a word that’s still yelled at people like me while they are beaten to death. I take it seriously, and I’m not ashamed of that.
This is how I write a column about political correctness—I start with a train story from five years ago, then I mention the Bible a bit and sort of spin a flowery list of hardships, and finally I slip in the F-word.
We’re living in a weird time when Selma might win a Best Picture Oscar but “social justice warrior” is an oft-slung, low-blow insult. Earlier this week, New York Magazine published a piece by Jonathan Chait titled Not A Very P.C. Thing To Say. In it, Chait speaks against the limitations of what he perceives to be our overly policed culture, setting a link between trigger warnings and censorship. And in it, like in this column, he uses his own experience. But his experience is in what he has seen or read or researched—he has seen trigger warnings overused; he has read accounts by people of color about how white folks require “proper etiquette” from them; he has researched his way into a compelling argument.
I understand his point. Sensitivity can slide into censorship. And yet I think any conversation that moves from sensitivity to censorship is missing a stop in the middle—truth.
It is true that the things in this column happened to me. And it’s true that they happened to me specifically because I am gay and because I am gay only. They have a cause—hatred/ignorance—and that cause is worth combatting. It’s required, actually. I cannot hear a joke that includes the word faggot without thinking of the kid, the adult, who is having that word slung at him at that moment. That doesn’t mean we should never use it. But we should use it powerfully, mindfully. We should use it to go to peaceful war. We should use it sensitively, to tell new stories and we should use it for truth. If this need for sensitivity offends you, I will ask: Why are you being so sensitive?