03/16/2013 11:25 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Happened When Children Were To Blame For A Hate Crime

Our doorbell, like most things in Manhattan, is aggressive. It sharply rings, "Someone is here! Get off your butt!" And when my roommates and I answer its call, we generally expect to meet an aggressive UPS man ("Can't you yell, 'I'm coming?!'") or an aggressive super ("Trash must be taken to the basement!"). Aggression is expected; hate is not. When I answered the door that midnight, I was shocked to find that we had been tagged -- targeted -- for being gay.

gay hate crimes

Ten minutes, a recovered tube of sunblock, and a handful of rocks striking our window later, it struck us that we were not being attacked by religious zealots, political extremists, or even angsty teenagers, but honest-to-God children. In my mind, handling this situation with grace and poise -- while acknowledging its gravity -- suddenly became a two-part process. The first step was to address the parents in my now-viral letter, outlining our experience in a way that allowed them to read, digest, and understand on their own time:

Dear Residents of Apartment 24,

We would like to (finally!) introduce ourselves as the residents of apartment 21, or, as young Cazen and his young friends so accurately vandalized on our door the night of March 2nd, the "gay bitches" of apartment 21. The party you were hosting sounded like a lot of fun, so we understand how you may have been too preoccupied to notice that your children were loose in the building at midnight, marking our property with homophobic graffiti.

For months now, we have dealt with your children throwing rocks, CDs, tennis balls, and various other unknowns across the ally at our kitchen window, and we have largely dismissed their behavior as understandably, well, childish.

But now, we need this behavior to stop. As it is yours, this is our building, our neighborhood, our home, and we want nothing more than to peacefully coexist. Well, that's not completely true; we want to be seen and respected as equals, and we want you to teach your children to accept everyone for who they are, regardless of their minority status, but we won't demand that. Because what we really want is to live without having to explain our humanity to our neighbors.

I plan to leave the graffiti on our door for two reasons. First, we ARE an apartment of gay men (and can be quite bitchy!), and we are not ashamed to be labeled as who we are. Second, I hope that you will encourage your children to clean their graffiti off of our door themselves.

Don't forget to buy Cazen more sunblock; sunny weather is right around the corner!

J.W., Matthew, and Primo

Please feel free to contact me (J.W.) at (though I warn you, content is a little gay! I talk about things life!), or knock on our door and say hello.

The second step was to call the NYPD and report a hate crime, hopeful to impress on these too-young kids that hate is more serious than a practical joke.

At 2:30 a.m., our neighbors awoke to NYPD pounding on their door, requesting to speak to their son. With a look of fear that matched his mother's disappointment, our youngest neighbor stumbled down the hallway, still tuckered out from his 12th birthday party earlier that night. And after a few minutes of denial, he admitted his guilt to the police, who explained that this was not a joke, that this was a hate crime, that he could face trouble if this ever happened again.

As striking fear in the hearts of children isn't a complete solution, I was motivated to talk with him in an effort to humanize gays, to help him reject the stereotypes that he had learned. "Buddy," I said, "I would appreciate it if you would put on your shoes, grab a towel, and talk to me for a few minutes while you clean our door." He complied. While my roommates thanked the police, we returned to the scene of the crime and he started scrubbing.

"Be honest with me. When you throw stuff at our kitchen window, is this what you think of us?"
"I don't know. I guess."
"When you look me in the eye right now, is this what you see me as?"
"No. You're not," as his eyes started to water.
"Then why? What makes you think that we are?"
"We see you guys dancing and stuff in your kitchen from my bedroom."
"And if we are, what's wrong with that? Don't we have the right to be happy, just like you?"
"Yes," as he contemplated.
"If you -- you missed a spot -- if you really think that. Do me a favor. Talk to your friends."
"Ok," as he cleaned "lol" off our door.
"The police can talk to them, I can talk to them -- you missed a spot -- but they will listen to you."
"Ok," nodding and holding back tears.
"Thank you," I said, putting my hand on his shoulder and locking eyes. "This is very serious, and you cannot treat us like this again, for any reason. Even if you don't like someone, you have to respect them."
"Yes, sir. I'm sorry. I do."
"You can go back to bed. It's too dark right now, but if I wake up in the morning and I see sunblock smudges in the daylight, I will knock on your door and ask you to clean it again," I said, pretending not to see the greasy smears that remained.
"Thank you. And happy birthday."

As he returned to his apartment, his mother turned to me, crying, and said, "I don't understand. I didn't raise my son to act like this."

"Ma'am, I know tonight is emotionally troubling for you," I consoled her, "but I hope he will be a better man for this someday. I'm grateful for the chance to speak to him man-to-man, and not just gay-neighbor-guy to unruly-neighbor-kid."

That night, as my roommates and I finished cleaning the door, the thought that aggression is survival in New York City returned to me, that even children in this city act first because they risk being targeted themselves. But aggression turns to hate when action supercedes rationalization, analysis, and compassion. Knowing that, we must respond to hate with what it lacks: understanding.