by Patrick Ryan
Today is the National Day of Silence, a youth-run effort to bring attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying, and harassment. Patrick Ryan, author of Send Me and Gemini Bites and an editor at Granta Magazine, talks to us today about his experience.
I want to tell the end of this story first, because the end is at least as important as the beginning: Michael Carroll remains, to this day, one of my best and dearest friends. We’ve known each other for 25 years, and we were a couple – a serious, monogamous and, for all purposes, married couple – for the last half of the 1980s.
We met at Florida State University when we were both sophomores. He was sitting on a bench, reading The Great Gatsby and I worked up my nerve to start talking to him. We fell for each other – hard. We instantly became one of those couples who did everything together: we exercised together, ate our meals together, studied together, and slept together. I had three roommates; he lived in a very narrow, single dorm room. By default, we slept in his room.
The dorm was all-male. Only one single room per floor: right at the end, next to the stairwell. Those single rooms where hard to obtain, and if you had one, you were envied – and noticed. So it was all the more noticeable when a second person (me) started spending the night in that room. Make no mistake: if I had been a girl, Michael would have been the stud hero of the floor. But I was a guy. And he was a guy. And this was 1986.
We were stared at, sneered at, spit at (there was one incident of spitting). I was too nervous to travel halfway down the hall to the bathroom – even in the middle of the night – so I would slip downstairs and use the bathroom on the floor below, where no one knew me as the guy who was sleeping with the other guy in the single room. Then people from Michael’s floor started congregating in the stairwell (were they on to me?), so I took to keeping an empty Gatorade jar beside the bed so I wouldn’t have to leave the room.
We had a good life, outside of the dorm. We had a good life inside Michael’s room. In the dorm, outside of his room, it was hell. “Gay,” back then, wasn’t being hurled around much as an insult and wasn’t synonymous with “stupid” (an evolution which will never stop bothering me), and “queer” had fallen out of fashion as an insult and had yet to become a reclaimed term of pride. The derogative word of the day/season/era was “fag.” “Are those the fags from the end of the hall?” one guy asked another, deliberately within our earshot. “Those are the fags,” another one said. And one guy, addressing us directly without wanting to be addressed back, looked us in the eye and said, “Hi, faggots.”
All we had to do was make it through the semester. After that, we planned on moving into an apartment together and putting this nightmare behind us.
During finals week – what turned out to be the last night we shared in the dorm – the guys on Michael’s floor got very drunk and decided they’d had enough. At 2 AM, what sounded like a large group of them started pounding on our door. Like I said, the room was narrow – not much wider than the bed. To lie in the bed was to be about a foot away from the door. They pounded and said, “Open the fucking door, you goddamn faggots. Tonight, you die. We’re going to beat the living shit out of you.”
We’d been sound asleep. We were curled around each other, our hearts pounding. It occurred to me that we were on the fourth floor and there were no fire escapes. The only way in or out of the room was through the door that was literally rattling against its hinges.
The dorm had been built in the 1960s and it looked and felt like a bunker. The door – and this is a very important detail, for I might not be here typing this if it weren’t the case – was solid wood. I don’t know how many guys were on the other side of it, but they were only getting angrier that they couldn’t gain access. “Soon-to-be-dead faggots, open this fucking door now,” they yelled. They kicked at the door, pounded it with their fists, ran at it and threw their bodies against it.
We did the only thing we could: we called campus security. “A bunch of guys are trying to break into our room and beat us up,” Michael said.
“Why?” the operator asked.
Did that really matter at the moment? Did that box on the form really need filled in before help could be dispatched? “Because we’re gay,” Michael said.
The operator’s breath stormed into the receiver for a moment. She said, “Someone will be there,” and hung up.
Our drunken neighbors gave it their best effort. They hit the door so hard that the coffee cup filled with pens on Michael’s small desk rattled. For over an hour, they shouted threats and kicked and pounded and body-slammed the door. Eventually, they got tired or passed out or both. The hall went silent.
No one from campus security ever came.
A well-made door: that was all that stood between us and broken bones, knocked-out teeth, cracked skulls, possibly death. And where did all that hatred and anger come from? There are lots of answers to that question, but I want to focus, today, on something different. I want to focus on the fact that the hatred and anger are still out there. We wouldn’t need a day of silence if they weren’t. The hatred and the anger are still out there, gay and lesbian and trans-gendered youth are still being harassed, and while we work toward acceptance and equality, we need to keep our guards up. We need to continue watching our backs. Yes, it gets better. But don’t assume the assholes have all gone away or been reformed. The headlines tell us they’re still thriving.
But to come back to my ending: Michael, who wasn’t killed that night, is a significant part of my life. I, who wasn’t killed that night, am a significant part of his. They say what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Sometimes, I feel that. But sometimes I feel that a dose of good old-fashioned cynicism – mixed with a healthy amount of caution – is the way to go.
It gets better. Ish.