How to respond to public homophobia?
August 3, 2016 7:52 PM   Subscribe

I was harassed on the bus today. I don't have a problem speaking out against homophobia if I witnesses it, but how do I do it when I'm the target?

Today on my way home as I was about to get off the bus a man started shouting at me claiming I had been staring at him (I had not; as far as I am aware I was breathing, thinking and minding my own business), and then proceeded to inundate me with homophobic slurs calling me a faggot, creep, disgusting trash, faerie, etc. all the while shouting and brimming with anger and disgust (my best guess is that he targeted me because of my pony-tail?). I was taken completely by surprise and in the moment I decided to simply ignore him (or maybe I was too shocked to do anything) looking about as if he wasn't shouting at me (while also not turning away; I had previously been standing in the middle of the bus and had moved to the door since my stop was coming up which was when the whole episode started; he was in the seat next to the door), which seemed to make him more angry and hateful, and I simply waited for my stop (maybe 45 seconds away) and I then got off the bus (he left at the same stop through the other door, at the front of the bus; at first I thought he would follow me but luckily he did not; he was quite large and intimidating). I think in the moment I must have seemed fairly calm (as I stepped out, a woman told me she was sorry and another young man told me it was good I had simply ignored the hateful dude) but afterwards I was shaking quite badly and when I got home I cried.

Now I happen to not identify as gay and I also don't care whether people think I am gay or not, but I am wondering what if anything I could have said or done to be a stronger ally/be supportive to those who unfortunately have to deal with this kind of crap more often? I mean in this situation (they happen occasionally), not as a bystander. While today none of the other passengers did or said anything I very much hope that had I witnessed a situation like that as a bystander I would have stepped in. How do I best handle situations like that in the future? What if anything should I say? Or is it better to ignore it?
posted by Vidamond to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This guy showed himself to be both aggressive and unable to follow social norms. You did the safest thing by choosing not to engage.

I'm sorry this happened to you.
posted by samthemander at 7:57 PM on August 3, 2016 [53 favorites]

Some assholes will back down from anyone who stands up to them at all.

Some assholes will back down before things get physical.

Some assholes will back down after a blow or two has been landed and face has been saved.

Some assholes are looking for an excuse to stomp someone's head to paste.

You have no way at all, ever of knowing which kind of asshole you're dealing with. Walk away.
posted by Etrigan at 8:16 PM on August 3, 2016 [71 favorites]

This is not homophobia, this is either uncontrolled rage or mental illness. This is not the time to worry about being an ally, this is the time to worry about not getting beat up or killed. You did everything right. I'm sorry it happened to you, and I'm very glad you are my ally when and where it's safe for you to be. Thank you.
posted by fritley at 8:17 PM on August 3, 2016 [32 favorites]

This is probably deeper than a dislike of gay people and you likely make the right choice by refusing to engage, but there are a number of apps you can keep on your phone for one-touch recording and cloud uploading (the one I have on my phone is called Fi-Vo, meant for recording the police but any port in a storm) if you think you might want to have something handy in the future.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:32 PM on August 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Having had similar experiences I agree with the comments above. Don't engage, do what you can to stay safe.
posted by the existence of stars below the horizon at 8:32 PM on August 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is not homophobia, this is either uncontrolled rage or mental illness. This is not the time to worry about being an ally, this is the time to worry about not getting beat up or killed.

Homophobia is rage, and mental illness, controlled or not, generally has less to do with rage than societally-condoned prejudices, like homophobia. This was a homophobic hate crime, regardless of your own sexual orientation, and I think you handled it perfectly well. I'm sorry it happened to you. It's normal for our brains, in such situations, to wonder what we could/should have done differently, but that doesn't mean we could or should have done something different in reality -- it's just our brains trying to make sense of what happened. I hope you're ok, and that, if you're not, you have people you can reach out to.
posted by lazuli at 8:39 PM on August 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

I have also had similar experiences, and ignoring it is the way to go. Yelling back escalates. Just make sure you have an exit and keep an ear out for random escalation. That guy is obviously an asshole who can't control himself, and all the rational people, including you, are just trying to reach their destination in peace.

There isn't usually a safe way for you to win, here-- that dude is obviously not working with a full contact with reality, so it's best to just stay safe and let it be obvious how horrible he is. Perhaps someone on the bus will get how awful homophobia is when they hear it out loud like that. You never know.

My personal line is to leave ASAP if they get in my personal space or start throwing stuff-- on a bus, you can try alerting the driver (sometimes backfires) or in some locales, calling the police (also may backfire), but your best bet is to know your nearest exit and your plan for what to do if they follow you (mine is to run into a business, which has worked so far.)

You do not need to be a perfect ally; this can get dangerous really quick, and even if it doesn't, it could get to become routine in your life (if so, welcome to the shittiest club ever) and you don't have the emotional bandwidth to put that much energy into it. Being an example of a calm, nice person, who may or may not be gay (as perceived by bus riders) is enough to change minds ("Wow, that was rough. That nice man doesn't deserve that. Maybe I should rethink what I say at home.") Do what you need to do later for your emotional wellbeing, but in the moment, just get through it and try to be the bigger person. I find it rewarding to stay put if I don't think I'm in danger, to the extent of staying on for an extra stop, because that way I win. But you may feel differently, and there are days I just get off and take a different bus.
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:01 PM on August 3, 2016 [7 favorites]

I'd give you a 10. For handling it quietly, and for reaching out to ask if there was an even better way.
posted by Baeria at 9:08 PM on August 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

When this happened to me my first reaction was personal safety - I think you did the right thing in this situation by not engaging and getting out of there. If I was the bystander in this situation, I'm don't think I would have said anything to the guy if I thought it would escalate a potentially dangerous situation.
posted by soakimbo at 10:05 PM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's not satisfying, but refusing to engage and walking away was the safest and best thing to do. Did you want to get into a fistfight with some asshole? No.

Well done.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:50 PM on August 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

This is not precisely on point, but I had a vaguely similar incident on a bus with a guy who started cursing and threatening and swearing at me because I'm fat. It was not entirely unprecedented, and like you, I chose to ignore it, avoid eye contact until I got to my nearby stop and then got off the bus. It felt like the safest course of action under the circumstances. Someone else on the bus went up and engaged with the guy and tried to de-escalate, which I hugely appreciated, but also did not acknowledge because I didn't want to get involved.

I later asked the customer service people at the transit commission, and they said I should have alerted the driver. What the driver would have done, I don't know, exactly. Asked the guy to leave? Called the cops? Nothing? But particularly in the case of hateful attacks like you experienced, it's probably not a bad idea to have some kind of official notice that it happened. The more of an official record there is of this kind of incident taking place, the more there has to be some kind of plan for dealing with it.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:44 PM on August 3, 2016

The driver/conductor should get the harasser off the bus when alerted. If they do not do so, they should be reported to the transit authority.
posted by brujita at 11:57 PM on August 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think the people on the bus who said they were sorry for what happened to you were being fine LGBT allies. This guy sounds like a dangerous person, and it's unlikely that engaging with him would have ended well. You weren't going to change his mind and you could have easily gotten hurt.

I'm sorry you went through that, but you handled it fine. Think of this guy like a live, exposed wire, crackling and popping. It's not your job to handle that, you've just got to stay away. I agree with brujita that it'd be a good idea to alert the driver, but Jesus, if this guy was going off that badly he may have been one for the police to handle.

(This is one of the reasons why I never, ever take the bus if I can help it. I took it for years in my teens, and I saw too many people shrieking with incoherent rage. It was a fairly regular occurrence. Bad shit happens on the bus.)

If you felt like you were in danger, or you want to be in a position to defend others if they are in danger, you might consider some self-defense training. But this guy badly needs counseling and probably medication, and you can't provide him with that stuff.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:29 AM on August 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Staying cool when someone else is raging and pissed off makes you look good by comparison. You definitely did the best thing.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:07 AM on August 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

There are better and worse places and times to advocate for LBTG. Sometimes the best and safest thing to do is walk away with dignity. You did exactly what the situation called for. The people commenting to you were impressed with your handling of the situation, as am I.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:10 AM on August 4, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you for your responses everyone. Your perspectives and insights are greatly appreciated.
posted by Vidamond at 9:04 AM on August 4, 2016

He wanted engagement sooo, sooo badly, and you deprived him of it. The best thing you could do.
posted by Vaike at 11:04 AM on August 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

A very similar situation happened to me a couple years ago except the woman followed me off the bus and started spewing profanity and homophobic slurs at me as I walked down the street. I did the same thing, full ignore. I still stand by that decision and think you did the right thing.

Oddly, the job interview I was going to did not go so well for me.
posted by MandaSayGrr at 12:24 PM on August 4, 2016

Several years ago I was newly diagnosed with a chronic illness and generally having the Worst Summer Ever at the same time that a couple of sleazy scam artists set up shop on the corner in between my apartment and my subway stop. I'd come home every day dog tired from work and the only way to get to my apartment was to pass these losers who would verbally assault me with increasing vitriol as the summer went on. I don't know if it was punishment because I would never "donate" to their "charity" or garden variety punishment for being a woman in public, but it was constant and it was hateful.

On one particular day, when I had in fact taken a cab home because I was so ill and fatigued but couldn't be dropped at my door because of construction, I snapped. I "stood up to them" as I had fantasized about many times, in a manner similar to many celebratory anecdotes one sees online. And... they escalated. They threatened me, plumbed new depths of obscenities, and followed me so that I had to walk almost a mile out of my way in order not to lead them back to my house -- crying all the way. It was honestly one of the worst nights of my life. I am not a very shakeable person, but I had to call a friend to come sit with me because of how shaken I was.

I used to think that I didn't stand up for myself because of my personality though I wished I could, but after that experience I know that protecting yourself is a way of standing up for yourself. If I saw someone else experiencing abuse like this I would never, ever be offended or somehow disheartened if all they did was ignore it. Like you said, bystanders can show support directly to a victim in ways that are safe for all involved -- which I have also experienced and appreciated -- but in the moment when the abuse is directed at you, all you can do is protect yourself and defuse the situation by refusing to engage.
posted by telegraph at 12:24 PM on August 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

As a bystander to such a scene, I would admire your grace in not responding in any contentious way to this asshole. No response actually works, because this person is not acting in a reasonable way. It's obvious from your description that he isn't interested in any kumbaya episode, so your composure is your best friend here.

Some folks feel the urge to push back under circumstances such as this, especially when the tormentor is so obviously in the wrong. I suppose it's normal to want to save face or defend one's space, but in a case like this you'll gain nothing by confrontation. The sharp end of such a confrontation is that you'll kick someone's ass proper. That victory turns to ashes when the adrenaline wears off, and tears if you actually damage him. An exchange of insults gets stupid after the first riposte, and is likely to lead to a physical confrontation: he may be armed, or highly skilled, or willing to damage you.

Anyhow, alternatives to what you did seem to lead nowhere good. So please accept my congratulations on a thoughtful and appropriate tack.
posted by mule98J at 10:40 PM on August 4, 2016

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