"Water! Cold water for sale! Two dollars for a water, and get my phone number for free!" the man dragging a cooler across the sand in Coney Island yelled, his voice raised to resonate over the cacophony of noises one hears on a hot summer afternoon on Brooklyn's most famous beach. He caught my smirk at his attempt to inject humor into his solicitous ventures and made his way over to our beach towel.
"You think I'm funny? Could I do standup?" he asked.
"You're pretty funny," I said and promptly turned my head away in typical New York disengage fashion.
He was a stranger, trying to make conversation and sell his product, and I just wanted him to move on to the next towel and the next joke. He was blocking my sun.
"You want to buy a water? I'll give you my number."
An awkward silence. How to respond?
"I don't think my wife would like that," I said and nodded to my left, where my wife sat watching the whole scene play out.
It was likely no more than seven seconds between my bold response and his reaction to it, but it felt like a lifetime. I braced myself, like one would seconds before a free-fall ride at the amusement park plunges at frightening speeds toward a possible death hundreds of feet below. To answer such questions honestly potentially puts you at risk. To avoid the question or answer vaguely denies you of your genuine identity and further perpetuates heterosexist behavior.
We in the LGBT community are faced with these moments all the time. Someone makes a heterosexist comment or statement, whether joking or not, and we have to make a split-second decision about whether to answer honestly and risk a potentially homophobic response. We have to make decisions almost every day about whether it's worth putting ourselves in danger by being honest or hide our true identities in the name of safety.
More times than I can count, my responses to comments by strangers or even acquaintances -- business partners, extended family, a bus driver, a waiter -- who presume my heterosexuality have been vague, to protect myself from a situation that could be potentially awkward at best, and dangerous at worst. I've answered honestly and revealed my sexual identity in an equal number of alternative situations and have been met with ignorant, misunderstanding, or, worse yet, discriminatory reactions. Even when people display an outwardly neutral response and genuinely want to be respectful, I can see their internal dialogue running a hundred miles an hour, trying to find the right words to say.
Like many of my LGBT brothers and sisters, I've experienced the full spectrum of responses from people, regardless of whether I've self-disclosed my identity. I've been met with everything from homophobic slurs and threats of violence to fake smiles and clearly fabricated attempts at acceptance and understanding. With strangers in particular, I've often chosen the route of being bold and proud, only to be deflated by ignorance. An initially chatty cab driver ignored us after we answered a question regarding where we'd been by explaining that we were on our way home after our wedding. Truck drivers have yelled homophobic epithets out their windows at the sight of me holding a girlfriend's hand. A dentist changed the topic after I mentioned my recent honeymoon with my wife.
"I'm so sorry," the water man on the beach said, visibly embarrassed by his assumption. "Can I offer you a free bottle of water?"
More shocked by his humble response than by my bold statement, I realized something significant: This was the first time that someone had apologized to me in the face of misjudging my sexuality. It was an "aha!" moment, a tiny blip on the map for LGBT equality, but it felt like much more. It felt indicative of a seismic shift in consciousness that's slowly but surely occurring.
Maybe the water guy has a cousin who is gay, or maybe a professional athlete he loves recently came out. Maybe he saw the news stories about the recent, heinous murder of transgender woman, Islan Nettles, in Harlem and had a pang of sympathy, or maybe he realized that if the federal government said that same-sex couples are legally equal to our heterosexual counterparts, then he should think so too. Of course, it was Brooklyn, not Moscow. It's also possible that the water guy had always been cool with diversity in sexual and gender identity, but I felt intrinsically that something big and positive was afoot. Hearts and minds are changing, one at a time, starting with the guy selling water at Coney Island and extending to legislators, parents, teachers and neighbors.
We have a long way to go until our laws are fully representational, until our brothers and sisters cease being targets in acts of violence, and until all guys selling water on all beaches around the world apologize for heterosexist assumptions. Evolution comes not as a tsunami but as a soft lapping of the tide, breaking down shells and rocks into fine sand and reshaping the shoreline over time.