On Saturday I went on a date. Because I got married so young and separated so recently, I haven’t been on many dates since 2008 when I was a student at BYU in Utah just coming out of the closet. My date was a man my age who also married young and recently divorced, so we were on the same page in a lot of key ways. We were also not on the same page in a lot of key ways.
While we were walking through the park, my date was happy to hold my hand, lean in close to me, steal a kiss—and while I enjoyed doing all of those things, I was doing so with a hyper-vigilance that he didn’t share. When we were walking, holding hands, and others looked our way, I immediately looked down, avoiding eye contact. When we were sitting in the grass and someone walked past us, I quickly leaned away from him. Before I could let him kiss me, I had to first scan the area to make sure no one was too close to us or was looking our way. When a few kids approached us and asked us a question, I pretended not to notice them lest their parents see them talking to us and get angry. In sharp contrast, my date interacted with the kids, let the strangers see us, and didn’t feel a need to pull back if someone else drew near.
The difference? Previous to his recent divorce, he had exclusively dated women. He’d never felt the need to hide his affection from the world because his dating experience was never a danger to him.
My duck-and-cover impulses were forged out of necessity in Provo, Utah. For one thing, if I had been caught dating men, I could have been kicked out of school, excommunicated from my Church, evicted from my apartment, and fired from my job all in one fell swoop—and that wasn’t an abstract; that actually happened to some of my friends. But I also learned to hide because I could have been hurt.
I remember one time in 2008 I thought I was walking down a safe suburban street and I was holding my date’s hand when suddenly a group of teens on skateboards swooped in, surrounded us, taunted us, and followed us. “Hey, Fags!” they jeered. I wasn’t safe.
I remember another time when we thought we were safe expressing our affection in the privacy of our car when a police officer came banging on the window, exposing us with his flashlight, demanding that we leave. We weren’t welcome in our own car parked next to the park, but straight couples on picnic blankets in the park—they were welcome, they were safe.
I remember the day my roommates found out that I was gay and they forbade me from bringing any friends to the apartment—promising that if I did, they would get me in trouble. I remember how degrading it was to have my roommate wait up for me in the living room, scolding me if I came home too late and grilling me on where I had been.
Of course, I also remember the nights when we went to the clubs in Salt Lake. We would go together—in groups of 8 or 12. We would gather in the parking lot right outside to spray pink glitter in our hair and line our eyes with it. We were a tribe, a pack, and once we got inside the club, no one could hurt us. “Hey, Fags!” in the club wasn’t a threat, it was a warm welcome—an invitation to let your guard down, to feel okay making eye contact, to dance and touch and be with men without looking over your shoulder.
I tried to explain my hesitancy at the park with my date on Saturday, and he was very understanding. It wasn’t something he’d ever had to do, and he shared my outrage at the injustice and privilege of that. “But this is New York,” he told me, “And this is 2016. You’re safe here. You can relax. These people don’t care if you’re gay or not. They’re not going to hurt you.”
Eight hours later a man walked into a gay club in Orlando and opened fire, killing 49 people. And this is 2016.