When I first came out at age 16, I told only select friends that I was a lesbian. It took me a year before I told my parents (actually, they confronted me until I admitted I was dating a woman several years my senior). Once they knew, the first thing my parents said to me was that they were worried about my safety. They were scared I was going to get beat up on the mean streets of New York City for being queer.
It was the late '90s, and Ellen DeGeneres was the only celebrity who had come out. Her show was subsequently cancelled, which shoved her back into the proverbial closet. Matthew Shepard had been beaten to a pulp and hung out in a cornfield to die in Wyoming. It was no picnic being a sexual minority, even as we approached the millennium in one of the biggest and most liberal cities in the world. But sadly, harassment was something I had already experienced.
However young and invincible we might have felt then, momentarily, I can still taste that first sting of fear that came with the realization that somebody might hurt me just because I'm gay.
One day, we agreed to cut class and leave school entirely. We giggled as we tiptoed from the back entrance of the school, shoving a piece of paper in the space between the keyhole to jam the lock so we could slip back in unnoticed. We hastened into a jog and then flat out started running, determined not to be seen by the school safety officers posted outside.
We were so absorbed in the thrill of sneaking out that we didn't realise until two blocks later that our hands were entwined. Her face registered shock at the same time mine did, and, completely unexpectedly, she gripped my hand more firmly and smiled. I had never been happier.
It was at that moment that a tremendously loud honk knocked me back to Earth. A truck driver had pulled up alongside us and stuck his face out of the window. "You lesbians are disgusting! I'm going to give you a reason to knock it off!" he yelled. We both laughed nervously and ran, but our hands were no longer interlocked as we made our way back to school.
It took less than a minute for the adrenaline to wear off and for a deep-seated fear to take over. That truck driver could have easily harmed us further. He could have translated his disgust for us into violence. However young and invincible we might have felt then, momentarily, I can still taste that first sting of fear that came with the realisation that somebody might hurt me just because I'm gay. My instincts told me that this wasn't a one-off, freak incident; it was just the first of what could be a lifetime of harassment — or worse.
After months of dark, secret rendezvous in stairwells and corners when no one was looking, this felt like the sun had at long last come out and was warming my heart with true love.
I even bought a T-shirt that read, "Chicks Dig Me," which I wore until the letters were so faded you could only make out "icks g me." Even once it was covered with holes, I refused to part with that shirt because I felt it was my warrior's weapon. I wore it boldly and proudly, yet always with a twinge of fear.
Men made all sorts of horrible threats and comments to me when I wore that shirt, particularly outside of New York City. "Chicks dig you, eh?" an old man behind the cash register of a Delaware gas station asked. "Well, how far do you let them dig?" And he cackled while two other men behind me joined in. I hightailed it out of there faster than a freight train, once again thankful verbal abuse hadn't escalated into physical violence. Even today, I am harassed by men who sling homophobic slurs at me in my own neighbourhood. I am routinely forced to swallow unsavoury comments from people who think they're being nice but really have a lot to learn about what it means to be gay.
I didn't get beaten in the streets like some of the queer people I know. I didn't get kicked out of my home by homophobic or transphobic parents. I wasn't left homeless to fend for myself. I wasn't shot at in a nightclub or forced to watch helplessly as a loved one died right before my eyes.
It's easy to see the Orlando massacre as an anomaly, or as another in an unacceptably long line of the mass shootings that plague our country. But it's more than that. It's a sobering reminder that marriage equality and corporate sponsorship don't mean that our movement has reached the finish line. Now, more than ever, we're reminded of how dangerous it can be to be LGBTQ. We must all remain vigilant and stand up for equality. We must stand together to condemn those who continue to act in hate rather than out of love.