It’s 2016 and this just happened to me, yes, right here in the gayborhood of San Francisco.
In the Castro early Saturday morning I boarded the bus to downtown. As soon as I stepped on, a brawny African American man in a black bandana shouted at me. “Help me out with something to eat?”
“Sorry, man,” I said as I sat down several feet away behind a divider, hoping to stay out of the man’s sight. There were only two other passengers on the bus, both huddled up front next to the driver.
Not being able to make eye contact with me didn’t matter. After a few moments went by, and no one else got on the bus, the man began berating. “You’re not giving me anything because I’m black,” he yelled, and then added with a menacing tone, “Faggot!”
It was the beginning of a ride of terror. At times I felt in mortal danger, but no one on the bus intervened or attempted to help, including the driver.
It was also the first time I’ve been called a “faggot” or felt physically threatened for being gay.
We don’t expect to experience such harassment these days. After all, we live in a new age of enlightenment when it comes to gay people, with much discrimination against us now illegal. And it might seem especially strange here in San Francisco, in the Castro no less, the city’s gay center, often considered the LGBT mecca of the world.
But being in San Francisco, and specifically the Castro, is probably why this happened. If you don’t like gay people, or you think gay people are weak and therefore easily victimized, then this is the one place you can be sure to find them. I was a man alone getting on a bus in the Castro, so the odds were better than anywhere else that I was gay.
“Faggot!” the guy in the bandana yelled again. “You disgust me. I can’t imagine what two men would even do with each other. What’s it like sucking little boys’ dicks? Faggot.”
The slurs kept coming. I slumped down in my seat and took out my phone to pretend that I was reading and the verbal assault was not aimed at me. The anger in the man’s voice intensified and a feeling of dread swept over me that this was a dangerously unstable person and the situation could quickly escalate. Anticipating an assault, I activated the camera on my phone to try to record some evidence, but I only managed to nervously fumble with the buttons and take a photo of my own knee.
Then the man got up from his seat and came toward me. I kept my head down, hoping that if he didn’t see me rattled then he’d simply move on. He passed me, still hurling insults, and stood up front, right next to the bus driver. From there he continued to shout obscenities at me. The driver pulled up to the next stop and opened the door. Since the man had been causing such a disturbance, I thought the driver would surely ask the man to leave.
Instead, they exchanged pleasantries. The man explained that it wasn’t his stop, and then he thanked the driver for allowing him to ride for free.
When the door closed the shouting started again, this time with the demand that I take off my jacket. He described the maroon coat I wore and said it was really his and he wanted it back, “Right now!”
I just kept staring at my phone, my face showing no expression, continuing to act as if the man was not talking to me. This seemed to enrage him even more, and he segued back into his diatribe about “cocksuckers” and “faggots.” My chest tightened. Now he’s going to attack, I thought.
But when we pulled up to a stop in the Civic Center, the man got off and headed in the direction of the BART station. I finally got a good look at him, at least from behind. He was tall, muscular and neatly dressed in a clean tight white knit shirt with a designer backpack slung over one shoulder. In frustration, or perhaps just bravado, he punched into the air as he walked away, finally releasing the meaty fists that could have pounded my face.
I wanted to immediately run up to the driver and ask why he didn’t call the police or tell the man to vacate the bus. Aggressive panhandling and verbally assaulting passengers should both be reasons enough to kick someone off. But then I realized that the man stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the driver while I was being harassed, so the driver knew exactly what was happening. Was he scared too? Didn’t the driver have an obligation to do more than just ignore the situation?
I had played the turtle in its shell and avoided a beating, but others have not been so lucky in the Castro. Those who want to victimize us are making the neighborhood a destination for assaults and robberies, with new cases every week. Police have publicly admitted that criminals from outside the city specifically target gay men here, especially those leaving the bars at closing who have had too much to drink.
Or as someone put it on the website Hoodline this past week, “Come for the rainbows. Stay for the muggings.”
There are also the public taunts and anti-gay slurs, like the ones I experienced on the bus. There have been times when troublemakers have come into the Castro in order to stand on a street corner and yell “faggot” and “cocksucker” at all who pass. But when the local police captain was asked about this at a public meeting, he said there was nothing that could be done because it’s “free speech.”
I doubt the city or police would shrug it off so easily if someone showed up in a primarily black neighborhood and shouted racist slurs and taunts.
Until this past Saturday I had largely forgotten that I’m a member of a minority group, one that remains despised or victimized simply for existing. I escaped unharmed, but the harassment on the bus was an abrupt reminder that there are still some people who want to hate us or hurt us. Yes, even here in San Francisco.