It was a Saturday night in November, 2009. Six months after the historic decision by the Iowa Supreme Court, 10 years after our first date, Barry and I were married in downtown Iowa City. After the wedding and reception, we had gone with our friends to the city’s lone gay bar to have a round before retiring to our hotel room. As Barry and I walked back, a group of drunk guys outside the hotel commented on our tuxedos: “Hope you had fun at the prom, fags.”
Those were the last well-wishes we heard on our wedding night. Such a happy day for us otherwise, yet that memory stands out 6-and-a-half years later: being called “fags” in our own town, by guys who were probably students at the university where I worked, in the downtown area we loved and where I visited every day for lunch.
You feel so many conflicting emotions in a moment like that: anger, fear, guilt, helplessness. We didn’t let it ruin the day, and didn’t give it a second thought on our honeymoon. But we think about it now and then, randomly, or in those moments when we don’t quite feel safe — perhaps back downtown on a weekend night among all the drunk students, or when faced with distant atrocities like the mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando.
Barry and I recalled our wedding night as we watched the story of the shooting unfold online; we’d both been thinking about it. “Remember after our wedding, when those guys called us fags?” It was a trivial incident by comparison, yet that’s where our minds went. Fear begets fear. It’s a primal scent memory.
Fear threatens to isolate people in the LGBT community, but solidarity gives us strength. It’s why gay bars are better described as community centers than as watering holes. You go to a gay bar to see your friends, hold hands, and dance too close — to let your guard down. Ask anyone who’s ever been fearful because of their skin color, religion, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation, to name just a few. They probably have a space where they go to be with others and feel safe. Solidarity is the antidote to fear and hatred.
Hatred has a volume knob, however, and we can’t always hear it. At its loudest, hatred sounds like automatic weapons fire and desperate screams. Turn the volume down a bit, and it sounds like beating and torturing a young gay man in Wyoming and leaving him to die. Further still, and it’s just shouting slurs at passing strangers, little more than background noise. At its quietest, hatred is barely recognizable. Quiet hatred sounds like passing up a deserving candidate for a job, a racist joke behind someone’s back, or compassion that’s rotted into self-righteousness.
We know that shouting slurs or refusing to bake a cake isn’t the same as killing someone, just as we know that profiling someone because of their religion isn’t the same as sending them to a death camp, and passing up someone for a job isn’t the same as lynching them. Yet we see the connections between all these things, the many paths that can lead from point A to point B. We understand that quiet, subtle hate can turn into loud, overt hate in an instant, and that the tools of hate don’t always ring out like a gunshot.
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We must have honest conversations about not just the loud hate, but also the quiet hate, and acknowledge they exist together on a spectrum. They are symbiotic, each feeding on while at once sustaining the other. Fear begets fear. Hate begets hate.
Every year at this time, LGBT people around the world hold exuberant, flamboyant, and sometimes bawdy pride celebrations. I know people don’t always understand why. I didn’t always understand it myself, but I do now. It’s because we’ve known fear, and we want to celebrate what comes after. We want to feel a little less fearful, and a little stronger. For a brief time, we want to walk downtown like we own the place.
Solidarity, too, has a volume knob, and some days we just need to turn it up a little louder.
• David Shafer is an entrepreneur and community activist in Iowa City, where he lives with his husband and partner of 16 years. He is the founder of Stratbase, Inc., a software startup company from the Cedar Rapids-based Iowa Startup Accelerator.