“Hey you, you in the leather jacket, what are you a faggot?”
I was on my way to work in the North Bronx, when I heard a teenager yelling this at me from across the street. He was with other teenagers, and they were laughing and egging him on. I was about 19 years old myself and in college. I was headed to my work-study position at a high school, where I counseled juniors, seniors, and their families on how to pay for college. These may have been some of the students I would do work with.
Growing up in the not quite working class neighborhood of Soundview in the Bronx, I learned to avoid most outright acts of homophobia. I instinctively knew what not to wear, what streets not to walk down, and what battles not to pick. I lived a mile from the subway, but I would walk that mile and take the 6 train to other places in New York like the East Village, Chelsea, SoHo, and Greenwich Village, where I could be as gay as I wanted to be, openly. Everybody in Soundview knew I was gay, but it was rarely a problem, as long as I “kept it to myself.” I was tired of keeping it to myself.
Instead of ignoring the taunting adolescents, I started walking straight at them. At this moment the universe randomly granted me a sang-froid and nerve I generally didn’t have when confronting homophobic slurs. Being called out your name, as we say in the Bronx, is essentially an invitation to fight. I would generally let these rare but upsetting confrontations slide. This time, wit and might were on my side, and I ignored better judgment. I wanted to say something. And I did.
I locked eyes with the mouthpiece of the group, who had taunted my jacket, my intensity silencing him. With a steady gaze, I smiled and said, “Are you stupid? This jacket is vinyl.”
They were dumbfounded for a moment, but then began to call me all manner of names, and threaten all manner of violence. Nonetheless, my sense of the situation was that they wouldn’t follow through on any threats, and I walked to work with a slow, deliberate swagger.