Jerry L. Wheeler
A few years ago, my friend Pete and I took his daughter, Whitney, to a show at the Bluebird Theatre here in Denver. We went to see L7. Whit was kinda goth, as I knew the crowd would probably be and I wanted to dress appropriately for the concert—in black. Eschewing a black eyeliner, which made me look like a raccoon the one and only time I tried it, I donned my Doc Martens and black jeans but the only black T-shirt I had clean was a souvenir from the Stonewall Inn in NYC. I didn’t think too much about it.
We had a great time at the show. Whitney, then all of eighteen, went down into the mosh pit where she sweated and jammed and tried to get out of the way of everyone’s elbows while Pete and I, aging gracefully but drinking liberally, sat at the bar in the back. Whit caught the eye of the drummer, who shoved people aside at the end of the set just to hand Whit her drumsticks. Nice. The house lights came up, and we joined the general crush for the door.
As we exited the auditorium, Pete and Whit and I got separated. I passed a mean-looking guy, unshaven, clad in denim and leather, leaning up against the wall. He looked directly at my chest and read my T-shirt. His brow furrowed, then his eyes got angry. I saw then that he was stone cold sober and mean as hell. I also saw him mouth the word “faggot,” or maybe he said it under his breath. It was loud in there and hard to tell. How did he know what Stonewall was? Had he read about it? Had it been pointed out to him by some equally disgusted friend on a visit to the city? That’s where all the faggots hang out.
No matter how he knew, he purposefully propelled himself off the wall and hurried after me. I tried to lose him in the crowd, but he actually pushed a couple of people out of the way to get closer to me. I looked around but still couldn’t see Pete or Whit anywhere, and as the crowd bottlenecked at the door, he gained ground on me. He was about three layers of people away. “Hey faggot!” somebody yelled behind me. I didn’t have to look back. I knew who it was.
The crowd pushed me out the door and immediately began thinning out. The light at Colfax was green and many of them rushed across the street for their cars. We had parked in the lot in back, meaning I had to walk down the alley. I just got around the corner, looking for Pete and Whit, who still hadn’t appeared, when I felt his hand on my shoulder, spinning me around. “Hey, fa-”
From there on, things got fuzzy. He took on the aspect of a few bullies I’d known in grade school. And junior high school. And high school. I remembered one holding my arms and another pummeling my gut. I remembered loud, wet slaps on the back in the gym showers. I remembered the way my blood used to dry on the inside of my nose because I started out the day getting a beatdown at the bus stop. I remembered shame and humiliation and guilt and regret and the words—“queer,” “fairy,” “pansy-ass,” and, of course, “faggot.”
But before this guy had a chance to finish his word, I took him by the collar and shoved him with all my strength up against the wall. I heard his head hit the brick, and I saw the fear in his eyes. I knew that fear well, and seeing it on a tormentor’s face for a change was, I’m nearly ashamed to say, a marvel. An entrance into a world that I’d been on the other side of my entire life. I don’t remember what I said, but I screamed it in his face and banged him against the wall until I saw blood on the brick. I kicked him hard in the shin with my steel-toed boot and left his punk ass bleeding in the alley. My legs shaking, I turned my back on him and walked to the parking lot at the rear of the building where Pete and Whit were waiting by the car. Then I climbed in the back seat and cried like a fucking baby.
Do I regret it? Sometimes. When the world is right and good and I can look back from the safety of my home with my dogs by my side; when my moral battery has been sufficiently recharged and I can allow myself to philosophize from higher ground. But when I look at what recently happened to two gay men just walking down the street in Philly, when I think of the slight, spare Matthew Shepard, when I think of thousands of queer men and women who endure hatred and physical abuse on a daily basis, when I remember the bullies whose faces haunted my entire childhood, I don’t regret it. I’m glad I did it.
Does that make me the same as they are? Maybe. Does that drag me down to their level? Perhaps. But I have the ability to rise back up again, stretch out a hand, and shake that of my oppressor. Would he do the same for me? Doubtful. And the more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that medieval conquerors put the heads of their enemies on pikes for a damn good reason. Is this slippery ground? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be explored. Everyone has to make his own decision, but sometimes turning the other cheek only provokes another slap.
I have a friend who believes rights aren’t won. They’re taken. And they’re taken by a combination of good cop/bad cop steps. Black men and women would never have gotten as far as they have with just Martin Luther King, Jr. or just Eldridge Cleaver. You need both someone soft-spoken to advance the agenda and a hard-ass motherfucker to show you mean business. I don’t know if I agree with that, but I see his point.
And if that ever happens to me again, I fully intend to go down swinging.
Editor of the Lambda Literary Award finalist Tented: Gay Erotic Tales from Under the Big Top (Lethe Press 2010), as well as four other erotica anthologies for Bold Strokes Books, Jerry L. Wheeler’s first collection of short fiction, Strawberries and Other Erotic Fruits was released by Lethe Press in March 2012 and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2013. His first novel, The Dead Book, is forthcoming from Lethe Press in 2015. Be sure to catch his book reviews on the web at Out in Print: Queer Book Reviews (outinprintblog.wordpress.com). If you’re in the market for his professional editing services, please check out Write and Shine at his website, www.jerrywheeleronline.com