Thomas Dolan, serves as a sober reminder that, while we New Yorkers may live in the gayest city in America, there are still mean, hateful assholes out there who have it in for us.
We're safer, but that doesn't mean we are safe. Just... be careful, everyone. Be wary. Be observant. And be smart. And, for god sakes, if you ever witness a hate crime, stick your neck out and help whoever is in need. It's the right thing to do. It's the only thing to do.
- Justin Luke
In an especially ironic early morning of MLK day, I realized that I should have known better than to cast stones so liberally, a propos of nothing. Around 2am, a friend and I stumbled through Hell’s Kitchen, hopping toward whichever bar had the biggest crowd. As we crossed onto 52nd Street, perhaps the gayest block in the gayborhood, I saw a man push another in what I assumed was some bar brawl. Being more of a lover than a fighter, I rolled my eyes and sauntered to the other side of the street. I soon heard the predictable crack of bone connecting with flesh, but was surprised that the attacker kept swinging even after the other fell to the curb. Instead of anger, though, the victim’s response was one of bewilderment: “What are you doing?! I don’t even know you!” This only incited the attacker, and he began stalking up and down the street, punching random men from among the gaggles heading home.
As the attacker’s friends began a too-familiar chorus of slurs, my mind leapfrogged from confusion to recognition - never disbelief. Though I hadn’t seen something like this in Hell’s Kitchen, the specter of hate crime is never too far out of mind for most gay men. However unexpected, the reality of what was happening became immediately clear.
I cowered behind an SUV and called the police, but the assault ended as quickly as it had begun. A silver car flew down the block in reverse, before picking up the attacker and disappearing into the lights of Times Square.
As the half dozen witnesses and victims fumbled introductions and entered into a strange brotherhood, I finished my call to 911. I asked that they send an ambulance, gave what a witness remembered of the license plate of the get-away car, exchanged contact information with the other witnesses and waited.
As I shivered in a mix of cold and adrenaline, I didn’t know quite what to think but knew it felt awful. Fundamentally, I knew I had been right not to intervene and get into a fight myself, but I felt emasculated to have done nothing. I also reassured myself that I had done the right thing in calling the police, but after officers arrived and doodled some notes, I felt like a fool for so blindly believing in a system that barely took my concerns (and community) seriously.
Once I finished relating my story, I headed into the bar - both a practical decision because of the cold and an attempt not to “let the terrorists win.” When I got inside, everything was as if nothing had happened. A part of me wanted to shout from the top of the bar that something terrible had just happened and that we weren’t doing anything, but an apparently stronger part of me wanted to fade into the background of just another night at the gay bar.
I thought of other moments when I felt both a call to action and the far easier (and more selfish) call to join the party. I remember the guilty pleasure I took in marching, shouting and invariably flirting in the streets after Proposition 8 passed. I thought of my trip to see Normal Heart, when I felt inspired by Larry Kramer, handing out a flier in the rain, but ultimately capped off the evening with a surfeit of brown liquor and banter. These experiences left me, metaphorically and more literally, unsure of where to go from there, but I somehow always chose the simpler option of escapism.
I realized that I have tried to avoid these moments - the loss of marriage equality in California, a play about the holocaust of AIDS, a gaybashing close to home - because they are reminders that my existence as a gay man remains precarious, even in 2012. I cringed at the time and energy I would spend dealing with the assault not because of the value of my time, but because to treat this attack seriously would mean acknowledging that this sort of ugliness still exists and that things aren’t as great as I want to think.
As a generation, we have witnessed an unprecedented deluge of LGBTQ images and rights, but we must remember that these victories have been accompanied by increasing conservative retrenchment and heartbreaking stories of bullying and violence. We (presumably) stand on the cusp of an unprecedented era of equality and acceptance, but much though I hate to admit it, we’re not there yet.
I didn’t suddenly become Larry Kramer, but the proximity of this assault reminded me that I need to strike a better balance between guilt, escapism and actually doing something. I have sought my next drink, next party, next paramour, because I hoped they might validate what I know deep down remains a precarious existence. There’s nothing wrong with a little escapism – that’s what bars have always been for – but there is a problem when escapism becomes so pervasive as to preclude any action.
By all means, we should take advantage of the comfort in which we lead our lives – why else do I scrimp for this overpriced corner of Tenth Avenue – but we should also acknowledge that our complacency is premature. For many, this kind of assault is a common, rather than extraordinary occurrence. We all know that. However, we do ourselves a disservice by burying our heads in the sand or simply meditating on change from a comfortable distance. I’m proud to have had the courage to come out and embrace who I am, knowing that that entails certain risks, but rather than give me carte blanche to retreat into hedonism, my being out should require me to do whatever I can to ensure that my sort of life is possible for all LGBTQ persons, should they choose it.
I’m grateful to report that this assault is now being investigated as a hate crime, however unlikely it may be that the attacker is ever brought to justice. Beyond sympathy and public flagellation, I hope that my writing is in some small way a step toward ensuring that there isn’t a next time.