Like most gay men I’ve dealt with a lifetime of homophobia. From the hallways of Marshal Simonds Middle School to the streets of New York City, I’ve been called every gay slur in the book. I have an attuned inner gauge that sets off an alarm when a possible threat is within thirty feet. Whether it’s teenagers just out of school on the C train or a group of rowdy straight boys coming from Madison Square Garden, my guard is always up when it needs to be.
But the one time I let it down is when I take my best friend Aidan for a walk. He’s half-Chihuahua, half Japanese Chin. The official name of his breed is a Chin-wa, which I hate. It sounds like a new vegan Asian dish, as in “please pass the chin-wa.” So instead I call this designer hybrid by a more appropriate name: a Chi-win-win. It’s a “Chi-win-win situation” is my dumb joke that always kills in the dog park.
Shortly after adopting Aidan I met my boyfriend Jonathan. At the time I was renting on the Upper East Side and Jonathan had just bought a condo in the gentrifying neighborhood of South Harlem. When Jon and I were ready to take the plunge and live together, my dog and I moved uptown.
Three times a day I escape with Aidan into Morning Side Park for some sniffing, running, leg lifting and skipping. Yes, my dog skips. We’re both very social and say hello to everyone. Aidan gives them a sniff, and then it’s on to the next tree.
One day I saw a very sweet-looking, older black woman walking her Havanese several feet away. Her dog began pulling his owner our way, bursting with excitement. I of course obliged by walking Aidan over and said, “Hello.” Both dogs did what dogs do: they sniffed each other’s butts. The nice older woman said, “Is that a boy or a girl?” To which I replied, “A boy!” She yanked her dog away from Aidan and yelled, “Get away from him, you’re two boys. You don’t do that, that’s disgusting.” And she walked away.
I stood there shocked at her blatant display of not only homophobia – but quite possibly canis-phobia. Then that all too familiar feeling of shame washed over me as I watched her drag her Havanese, who looked just as confused as Aidan and me, through the park. I dropped my guard and was blindsided in the last place I ever expected. “Seriously?” I said aloud.
I thought it was an isolated incident but a few days later, it happened again. But this time it was a middle-aged Hispanic woman. Then it happened again with an Asian guy. All of them were projecting their disdain for homosexuality onto their innocent dogs by ripping them away from their most natural instinct.
A dog’s sense of smell is its greatest sense, and dogs have anal glands that give off strong odors. By sniffing those glands they can tell the sex of another dog, if that dog is in heat, what they had to eat and other very typical social information. When a dog sniffs another dog’s butt it’s like two humans shaking hands. Or is it?
Humans manipulate first greetings all the time. Can you always be certain that someone is gay or straight when you meet them? To some I appear obviously gay but to my prejudiced neighbors did I mask as straight? Would they have made those remarks if they knew I was “disgusting” too?
The more it happened the angrier I became. One day, yet again, another seemingly nice older black woman pulled her dog away and said, “Oh, two boys don’t do that.”
This time I replied, “Honey there is nothing wrong with two boys doing that.” Her eyebrows shot up higher than Joan Crawford’s and she walked away, clearly embarrassed. I couldn’t help myself. I was tired of standing in silent shame while people unknowingly dehumanized me.
I began to wonder why now, after more than fifteen years in New York, was I discovering an underground world of gay-hating dog owners? The answer is I caught them off guard. I’m sure not one of these people would ever say what they really thought out loud in New York in front of another gay person. But their true feelings came out – deep within Morning Side Park and behind their dogs. And I was there to see it.
I also wondered why they were mostly African-American and Hispanic women. Well, I did just move to a neighborhood where the dominant religion is Christianity and many of these women emigrated from other, less tolerant countries. Plus, until recently, they probably haven’t had to live side by side with openly gay neighbors in Harlem.
In a post Trayvon Martin world, where African-American and Hispanic communities are demanding change concerning racial profiling, it’s interesting that in some neighborhoods they neither see gay profiling nor discrimination in the same light. I go out of my way to make sure that no black or brown man or boy feels uncomfortable around me. I am careful not to look at them with suspicion and treat them with respect as I would anyone else.
As the co-chair of GLSEN-NYC (Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network) and the founder of my own anti-bullying organization Life After Bullying, every day I explore ways in which children and adults can treat each other with more respect and compassion. It has taken a lot of patience and tolerance for me to accept that since I moved to a new neighborhood and became the minority in a city I’ve lived in for most of my adult life I’m going to have to help change people’s views about gay people. How do I do that? By simply going to the park everyday with Aidan to show them how alike we all are.