When I was 15 years old, walking to a bookstore in Boston, I was followed by 3 white guys in a pick up truck. They called me a dyke and a cunt. They spit at me and threw their almost-empty beer cans at me, splashing me with beer. One of the guys stood up in the back of the truck, thrusting pelvis and yelling that he was going to “rape me straight”–a threat that terrified me, but likely has a very low success rate.
I reached the corner at the same time as the pick up truck and we all stopped to wait for the light. Every cell in my body felt danger, so I ran against the light across the street–probably the first rule I’d ever broken in 15 years–and ran into the first door on the next block. It was a bar. I ran inside the door and froze, not sure what to do. I was scared of getting in trouble for being underaged and getting thrown back onto the street.
The woman behind the bar studied me for a few moments, then said, “You need something, Honey?” So many thoughts were spinning in my head and none of them were untangled enough for a single strand of words to come out of my mouth. So, I just stood there, opening and closing my mouth, the lump in my throat growing.
She walked out from behind the bar toward me. I noticed her Labrys earring in her right ear, her short, clean fingernails, her greying mullet (the haircut I used to call “lesbian haircut #7” because it was shaped like the number) and I knew I was with family.
“Three guys in a pick up truck…” I said, not sure how the words squeezed through my throat. I pointed to the door.
“God damnit,” the bartender said, as she grabbed a crow bar from behind the bar and ran out onto the street. I heard her yelling. My whole body relaxed, and as soon as I relaxed, I started to shake and to cry. One of the customers managed to slide a chair under my butt just as my legs were starting to give out. I looked up to thank him, an impossibly thin man in a long Paisley house dress. His silver hair was combed back away from his face, and I could see a little bit of make up near his right temple at the edge of his hairline. He had kind, hazel eyes and kept an eye on me after he’d gone back to his drink at the bar.
The bartender came back in cussing. “Those muthafuckas,” she yelled in her Boston accent. “Drive by here every fucking afternoon when people start getting off work.” She looked at me. “You a little shook up?” I nodded. She went back behind the bar. “I’ll get you a coke. I love a coke after a good gay bashing. Almost makes it worth it.” I heard people laughing and turned to look. Two men in business suits, one with his jacket off and collar loosened, the other with his briefcase open on the table, in the middle of reading a big stack of paper. “Good one, Karen. I prefer 7 shots of whiskey after a gay bashing myself, but to each her own.”
Karen brought me my coke, and it really did hit the spot. My hands and legs had stopped shaking. The bar filled up and I listened to the loud laughs and the soft murmurs of the crowd. I must have sat there for 40 minutes until Karen caught my eye and motioned me over to the bar.
“You gonna be okay, kid?” She asked.
“Yeah, yes, I’m okay. Thank you. Those guys scared me.” She snorted and rolled her eyes.
“Please, those guys are only brave in groups of three or more, and only after a few beers. One sign of me with old Sally here (she lifted up the crow bar) and they run. You’re brave, being so young and walking around like that.” She pointed to my hair, then kept going until my feet. I shifted in my hiking boots and felt the baggy pockets of my cargo pants with the tips of my fingers. I saw the plaid shirt that I was wearing in the mirror over the bar, and then my hair cut–very nearly a crew cut, with a tail hanging down over my right eye, which prompted almost every adult to ask me whether or not I could see.
Karen said, “I didn’t come out til I was 25, and I didn’t start looking like a dyke til I was about 30. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if I’d walked into High school dressed like that. But times were different then.”
This was 1986. It had never occurred to me to dress any differently than how I wanted to. I was standing on the backs of the queers who came before me, who were harassed, bashed, killed, never able to come out. I stood there looking at Karen with a deep rush of gratitude that made me start tearing up again.
“Thanks again,” I managed.
“Anytime, kid. These are different times, sure, but watch your back anyway.” She patted me on the shoulder then turned around to fill a pint with beer. I walked out of the bar, back into the dusk. I skipped the bookstore and got on the train and went home.
I have never told that story in full. I kept it to myself for 30 years for two reasons. The first reason was the deep shame that went along with the threat of rape. I thought it was my fault. It was because of how I was dressed–how I looked– that put me in danger. It wasn’t a short skirt and heels, but strangely, hiking boots and cargo pants that I should not have worn. If I’d worn something different, if I looked more gender-conforming–this would not have happened, so this was on me. I should have done something different.
I understand how ridiculous this was. Of course I wasn’t to blame for the homophobia of 3 drunk Bros in a pick up truck. But the gender training I received was so deep that I blamed myself for being threatened with rape and felt too ashamed to tell anyone.
The other reason I never shared this whole story was that that time I spent in that bar was my secret safe place. Those queer folks made space for me to exist just as I was. I didn’t have to impress them, or be funny or smart to earn acceptance. They helped me because I was one of them. I was family. I was worth protecting because I was one of them. I had never experienced that before in my life. And even now, when I imagine a safe place in my mind, I see Karen tearing out onto the street with her crow bar, and I feel the quiet man with kind eyes move a chair under my butt, and the men in suits laughing and joking, showing me a way to deal with my pain.
I’ve been in countless queer clubs and bars since then, and it has always felt like family, and home. I agree with this beautiful old dyke on twitter to the younger generation of queers. This wasn’t supposed to happen to you. You–we–were not supposed to get gunned down with our family, in our safe place. I stand with you. We are family. We are responsible for one another. Even now, in my life where I mostly pass as straight and am submersed in a vat of heterosexual privilege, married to the love of my life, who turned out to be a man, I am with you. My heart is broken with the loss of 49 family members. I have been mostly numb this week, but I am here, and queer, and I will always keep fighting for the safety of my family.