I was 5 years old when I first learned what the word “faggot” meant.
I’d just started kindergarten and was playing a solo game of hopscotch on the school grounds during recess ― a game I’d learned to play with my older sisters on the driveway in front of our home ― when I found myself surrounded by a group of towering sixth grade boys. I was beginning to ask if they wanted to play hopscotch with me when the first boy pushed me, hard, from behind. I stumbled to the asphalt. My small, bare knees seared with pain and were soon covered in blood from the indentations the rocks made in my skin. I didn’t cry. I placed my hands on the chalked square in front of me and knew not to speak.
“Get up, faggot!” one of the boys shouted.
I did as he said, only to have another boy push me back across the circle. They continued shoving me between them until I fell backward and hit my head on the pavement. I still didn’t cry. They could see the blood starting to drip from my hair.
“Let’s get out of here. He’s not worth it,” one of them said. They ran off toward the monkey bars. I stared up at the sky and reached up to feel my wet hair. Only then did I let tears fall down the sides of my face and pool with my blood on the hot asphalt.
A playground attendant found me several minutes later and asked what had happened. I didn’t tell her. How could I? I didn’t understand it myself. I did know that the word they used was not to be repeated.
My mom came to get me from school. I didn’t know what to say to her either. As she was carefully cleaning the rocks and blood from my hair I asked, “Mom, what does ‘faggot’ mean?” She squeezed my hand, blinked back her own tears, and told me not to pay any mind to what I’d heard that day on the playground. I asked my dad the same question later that night. He looked startled and alarmed. “Where did you learn that word?” he asked. I told him. In a stern voice he declared that it was something strange men with a single pierced ear did to each other, something unutterably wrong, that I was not that, and I should never say the word again.
I was called that word again many times over the course of the next 12 years. It didn’t stop until I graduated from high school, left my hometown, and learned there was a much bigger world that could see me beyond the limitations of fear.
Last week, a stranger crossing the street stepped directly into my path and shouted, “Faggot!”
I wish I could tell you that I stood my ground and gave him a piece of my mind. I didn’t. I averted my eyes and kept moving forward. I wish I could tell you my first thought was, “What’s his problem?” But that’s not what I thought. My first thought was that I should stop wearing purple earbuds and cream-flecked, cable-knit sweaters.
I’ve been thinking all week about what it will mean to live in Trump’s America. I’ve seen the same word that was shouted at me at 5 and again now, at 38, spray painted on churches and across car doors in different corners of this country. Other words and symbols of hate have been used this week in unprecedented numbers to target marginalized groups: Muslims, Jews, Blacks, Latinos, refugees, women.
Do I believe all Trump supporters are racist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynistic? No, I don’t. But I also don’t believe you get to choose the consequences of your words when hate speech is wielded as a weapon against minority groups on the campaign trail. Many may claim they were “willing to overlook” the divisive, incendiary rhetoric during this election in favor of rejecting establishment candidates ― choosing to voice their very real economic woes by upending the proverbial apple cart. They may not have fully realized then that one of the consequences of this election would be to embolden the nation’s bullies, young and old ― bringing them out from the shadows into legitimizing light.
I hope some see that now. I hope some regret casting a vote that entrenched the roots of despotism in our democracy.
And if they do, I hope they will join with me.
Join me in standing up for the woman who is derided for wearing her hijab on the subway. Join me in declaring that people of color should not be disproportionately incarcerated and killed by law enforcement, but protected and served according to the credo bravely upheld by the best of our men and women in uniform. Join me in affirming the vitality of our LGBTQ communities. Join me, with raised voices, in proclaiming that the exploitation of women’s bodies is not who we are. Join me in decrying hate speech, slurs and epithets whenever and wherever they are uttered. Join me in reminding the world that the promise engraved at the foot of The Statue of Liberty: “Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” are still the words we choose to live and, if necessary, die by.
I think all the time about that 5-year-old boy lying alone on the pavement, looking up at a stark blue sky. I imagine someone reaching out their hand to him, lifting him up, holding him close. I imagine it being your hand, and mine.
Will you join me?