“What is your balance between maintaining your dignity and ignoring the hate for your own safety?”

peace
Photo by PoPville flickr user District Shots

“Dear PoPville,

This past weekend, my partner and I were laying on a blanket in the park at Georgia ave in between Irving and Columbia, minding our own business. We noticed a man sitting nearly who was talking/yelling to himself some nonsense, but we just ignored it. Not long afterwards, the man came over to us and started yelling at us about how “a man shouldn’t lay with a man” and that “we couldn’t even reproduce.” In addition, he told us we “weren’t even from here,” threw his birth certificate at us, and told us that we need to “stay in our place, stay down, stay powerless” along with about 5 minutes of mumbo-jumbo non-sense. Although this man clearly had a mental illness to accompany his bigotry, some of it was coherent enough to know that he was upset we were 1. Lesbians and 2. Not white.

We were both pretty scared and I was worried he had a weapon. My partner kept her gaze away and I just sat there and nodded, saying “yep” and “ok” even though I really wanted to say please leave us the F*** alone, you homophobic xenophobic a**hole. When he finally walked away, I was conflicted between the fact that I didn’t stand up for my partner and myself, but also glad that we didn’t risk escalating verbal or potentially physical harm.

As I’m sure this type of confrontation frequently affects those who are queer and/or people of color- how do you handle it? What is your balance between maintaining your dignity and ignoring the hate for your own safety? Has this happened to others, and what have you done that has made the situation better/worse?”

60 Comment

  • You did the right thing by basically nodding and ignoring him. You admitted that he may be suffering from mental illness so it probably serves no value arguing. Its a lose lose conversation.

    • I agree. There are plenty of mentally ill people who are relatively coherent. Doesn’t mean what they are saying is of sound mind. Also, as a white male I’ve been yelled and screamed at plenty by mentally ill minorities claiming I’m the man, etc. etc. It’s not just concentrated to minorities and LGBTQ communities. Just saying.

      • LOL – the original poster in no way was saying that white men don’t get yelled at by randos on the street, too.

        If you want to convince yourself that LGBT people don’t face hugely increased risks of being attacked, go right ahead, but I don’t think most people here will be buying it. I shouldn’t have to explain that it’s probably scary for two women to be confronted by an irate man for no reason.

    • Ashy Oldlady

      +1. You really have to choose your battles.

    • Yup. There’s no such thing as winning with nut jobs.

  • Never engage the crazy.

    • And stop assuming most people are sane. You’ll be a lot better prepared if you assume most people are nuts. (Words of advice from my retired detective sergeant father in law, who worked 7D during the crack years.)

    • Agreed. Although this particular encounter stemmed from hate and bigotry, which takes it to another whole level of awful, it seems like it should ultimately be dealt with the same as any other verbal, unpredictable, and potentially violent encounter in DC – ignore it, get away, and/or call the police if at all possible. You just can’t predict what people will do or whether they have a weapon.

  • I am sorry this happened to you. Do not feel badly that you did not stand up to him. You did the right thing. First and foremost you protected your partner by not engaging him.

  • justinbc

    In that situation you certainly should not feel conflicted about not standing up for your partner. Interacting with that person would have been even less fruitful than an internet troll.

  • Yes, any self-defense class for women or queer people will teach you that your safety comes first. What could possibly be gained from trying to maintain “dignity” in front of a crazy person? Makes no sense. But, actually, even when the person seems just hateful, but not crazy, maintaining your safety always takes precedence over standing up for yourself, unless you are willing to risk avoidable harm to yourselves.
    .
    Have been in relationships where this is a bone of contention – where my girlfriend wanted to put up a defense, and I did what I had been taught in my women’s self-defense classes, move away and avoid confrontation and possibly injury.

    • Agree 100% about their being nothing to gain here. And there would’ve been a lot to lose. I go through the same internal struggle when some rando makes lewd comments to me when I’m walking home alone. It sucks

  • Realizing that it’s difficult to speak in generalities about something so broad as mental illness, let alone when we aren’t talking about an actual diagnosis just a bystander’s perception — is there a best practice for this? Generally my thought would be to avoid escalation and basically do just like OP, but is there any risk that this encourages anti-social behavior, such that the individual might escalate to violence against someone else?
    .
    I’d also be worried that, if someone with untreated mental illness is going around and spouting off, they will eventually find someone less level in the head. However, I don’t know if a relatively calm confrontation today would do anything to reduce the outbursts tomorrow.

  • northeazy

    While you pose an interesting question (I recommend always chosing safety over dignity in a situation like this) I think you are giving the perp too much credit. As you admit, he was mentally ill, therefore I do not think he had the requistie state of mind to “hate.” To call him homophobic or xenophobic in a way absolves actual homophoic and xenophobic people since they are rational people who choose to hate.

    • you can definitely be both mentally ill AND homophobic and/or xenophobic, and carry around hate.

  • Please have some compassion when dealing with people with severe mental illness, and of course be careful when anyone becomes overly aggressive. You did the right thing. Someone like this man is not operating in the same reality we are and it concerns me that anyone would want to handle a situation like this the same way they would with someone who is lucid. While obviously difficult, no one should not take encounters like this personally. It is also good to keep in mind that people with mental illness (especially those who are homeless) are the most marginalized and underserved group among us…

  • I think I actually know who this person is. He became fixated on a friend of mine for a while and generally harassed him, but finally moved on after years. There is no point in engaging with him and there certainly is no point in trying to reason with him. I suspect he suffers from some pretty severe mental illness.

  • Sounds like it was our former neighbor. He’s relatively harmless but scary when he’s yelling at you. Not engaging him or anyone you find threatening is the best course of action.

  • Although I’m sure minority groups of any kind experience these types of situations more than others, this isn’t limited to non-white LGBTQ folks. I’m a white man who lives in NE DC. I occasionally experienced harassment on the metro or on the street of the typical “you people,” or even the “white f*ggot motherf*cker,” type. I just chalk it up to living in close proximity to lots of other people. You get the good ones and the bad ones together. Maybe not worth a blog post, though.

    • The white guy thinks the safety and dignity of LGBTQ POCs isn’t worth a blog post. Internet conservation, now, that’s worth a post. We might run out of internet if we’re not more careful!

    • there’s not exactly limited space on the internet, so it’s ok to post stuff that may not feel “worth” it to you.

      OP, sorry you had to deal with this.

      I am white and queer and when faced with similar situations have tried to protect safety over dignity–there isn’t much dignity in arguing with someone irrational, anyway. For me, this has involved not engaging, but also deliberately trying to move away from the harasser and to a more public space (with more witnesses should things escalate). I try to make sure I know where my phone is and if I have anything with me that could be used as a weapon in the event that I need to defend myself, but try very hard to avoid things getting to that point (and so far it never has). One time when someone who was similarly unstable did actually grab me, I was able to say very loud and clear “STOP TOUCHING ME” and pulled away as people turned around to look.

      It is miserable though and I’m sorry this happened to you. I wish we had better mental health care and that people were kinder to each other. It has helped me to remember that as crappy as it feels to be harassed, the harasser’s life is probably a lot more miserable.

    • So take out the part about being a person of color or being gay, this post is a question posted to our community. This is clearly something many of us have experienced in some form or another. Why is her race and sexuality relevant? Why shouldn’t it be? One, it’s what makes her who she is. Two, who she is clearly made her a target to this person. So it is absolutely relevant.
      We can have posts about chicken bacon ranch pizza, long debates about proper bike etiquette, and seemingly weekly posts pitting parents versus pet owners, but this isn’t worthy of a post?

      • “We can have posts about chicken bacon ranch pizza, long debates about proper bike etiquette, and seemingly weekly posts pitting parents versus pet owners, but this isn’t worthy of a post?”

        Thank you!!

    • Oh FFS, Alex. Let’s talk about the equivalence of your harassment with that of LGBT POC women. Please dictate how nonchalant they should be about danger levels while being threatened, as well as blasé about asserting dignity in a culturally marginalized identity that is being specifically targeted. I think your thoughts are probably what aren’t worth posting.

    • While I have similar experiences and can understand you are trying to find common ground/not discredit the author of the post, just be mindful that people outside of the majority have additional scrutiny upon them simply for existing.

      It’s not to say straight white men live lives devoid of harassment. But IMO we don’t need to let people like a lesbian woman know their negative experience, which in this case was provoked by someone taking exception to her sexuality, could happen if they weren’t a lesbian woman too.

  • I would have given him a minute to move on while recording him. If he didn’t I would choose to leave, maybe pop into a store for a little bit until he leaves. Then optionally report him, with your video evidence. He has a mental illness so he shouldn’t be engaged with and if there is a risk for him becoming violent there should be a paper trail for the future.

  • Ok, echo that I’m sorry this happened to you & agree that you did what was best in the moment to keep the two of you safe. Do not second-guess your instincts, there is nothing to be achieved in the long fight for equity and equality in these types of scenarios.
    But – he threw his *birth certificate* at you? Does that mean he then had to retrieve it from wherever it landed? Or does he just have a bunch of copies for occasions such as this?

    • justinbc

      Yeah I found that element (above all the others) to be particularly odd.

    • if you kept the birth certificate (or if he didn’t take it back) perhaps you can turn it into the police for their awareness? It’s unfortunate that our mental health system is essentially provided by law enforcement, but in this case the guy was threatening enough to probably have committed assault.

  • You did maintain your dignity–you didn’t engage a hateful crazy person.

  • Do not feel bad for not confronting him. It’s a reaction we all have after run-ins like this. I’m gay and have been called slurs while on the street in DC multiple times.

    The one time a friend decided to fire back (verbally), the guys yelling at us jumped him. Safety should come first, whether that means not responding, or actively getting yourself away from whoever is bothering you.

  • I don’t engage with crazy. I also don’t engage with people who have less to lose than I do. Or people who, by all appearances, are between their 3rd and 4th periods of incarceration at the tender age of 25.

    • how exactly, pray tell, can you tell whether someone has been incarcerated 3 times?

      Do you quickly find out their names and pull out your phone and look them up on the DC courts website?

    • Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I can’t tell with certainty. On the other hand, I don’t need to. If someone appears like they’re no stranger to the penal system, I make it a point not to confront them. If someone looks like a thug, I avoid altercations. It’s pretty simple.
      .
      Before you get up in arms about profiling or other such nonsense, let’s remember that we’re talking about a decision to confront someone over antisocial behavior. This isn’t refusing to give someone a job, or hold the door for them, or pick them up in a taxi – it’s refusing to get into altercations with thugs. I don’t think even the most ardent social justice warrior could quarrel with that – but then again, I’m continually amazed by that particular subset of our society.

  • Absolutely the right thing not to engage. I do the same with cab drivers who say things I don’t agree with, even if they aren’t directed at me personally. No point in putting oneself in a compromising/unsafe position with someone who won’t/can’t see a different point of view.

  • Aw, everyone is being so nice today!

    • when the choice is being nice versus increasing one’s risk of getting assaulted and possibly killed, nice is an easy choice!

  • Don’t underestimate the power of “I’m sorry you feel that way,” while moving along regardless of the other person’s mental health state. But I agree with the others … you did maintain your dignity.

  • Been there done that. Safety. This is where you lie and say she’s your cousin or visiting from out of town or something. You nod along while you calmly make your exit.

  • The Bible says a man shall not lay with a man “as he does with a woman,” and as far as I know, gay men do not lay with men as they do with women so… what is the problem? I read it as saying you should stick to one or the other.

  • Ugh, this sucks and I’m so sorry you & your partner had to experience that. I’m a white queer woman & firmly believe you should do whatever makes you feel the safest in a given situation. For me that usually means simply walking away. People who are unwell and/or hateful enough to start yelling at strangers can become violent without warning, and so I like to put as much distance between them and me as possible. Unfortunately safety isn’t always satisfying – as much as I’d love to scream right back at these jerks, I’d love even more to get home to my partner in one piece.

  • This exactly. I’m absolutely conflicted sometimes about whether to stand up for myself or take the abuse. As a gay woman, I’ve been screamed at while holding my girlfriend’s hand and I’ve been harassed by men while walking alone. It’s sadly common and it creates inner turmoil – should I be an out and proud gay today or just wait until I get to a block with more people to stand up for myself?

  • Ally

    So sorry you both had to go through that. I think you handled it exactly right. You don’t need to stand up for your partner against someone who so clearly is not in a right mental state. I’m sure she more than understood the situation and wouldn’t want unnecessary risk. Same with any general, crazy bigots (though they have far less of an excuse than the mentally-disabled man). Just remember that it’s their issue and their ignorance doesn’t in any way demean what sounds like a really cool relationship. I know…easier said than done <3

  • I often encounter a nut I’ve nick named Black Budda (He’s Black, huge gut, sits like the common Buddah statue) who sits under the bridge near the Beach DR to RCP PKWY convergence….he yells to me I’m a “sodomite of the first order” and I yell back “thanks for the compliment”. T

  • There is no need to engage with people like the individual described in the letter. As others have said, de-escalate and defuse. Taking these types on won’t change anything. Some may or may not be mentally ill. If you are walking then keep walking. If you are stationary, as was the case in the letter, then pay close attention to them. Safety first.

    Think about it like this: your interaction with a troubled individual only needs to be limited to a brief moment in time. They have to deal with themselves for the rest of their existence. Don’t prolong their intrusion into your life by trying in any way to further the interaction.

  • There is no balance. Personal safety should always come first. If someone is acting out of mental illness, it’s possible that confronting him or her will just lead to additional or worse behavior. And if someone is acting out of hatred, it’s possible that a confrontation is exactly what he or she is looking for and will be used as an excuse to direct even more dangerous behavior towards you.

  • I agree that your personal safety should come first.

    I am a psychologist and I work with many types of people, including those with serious mental Illness. I think it is very important to record his behavior if you are able to do so safely, and notify the police ASAP. If he has been ordered to receive treatment and is acting out, and and perhaps not going for treatment and taking medication, the police need to know and act to get him back into outpatient treatment or a more intensive level of care. Letting him behave in this way is wrong to you, but doesn’t help him either

    Homophobic, racist, and antisemitic themes are common among people suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Unfortunately, we have very primitive understanding of these disorders, and medications are not perfect and don’t work for all people. But I have seen them help many. I would be very, very surprised to find out that this guy isn’t known to providers, and probably to the police. Treatment is available, and it’s free in DC, as it should be everywhere in our country. The flip side is that we have to keep people in treatment.

    By the way, he is legally entitled to say homophobic or other discriminatory things. If he threatens to harm you that is illegal, and he’s in even more trouble if he targets a member of a protected group – that is a hate crime.

  • The proper and logical thing to do is, as everyone else said, ignore it. Engaging is a lose-lose scenario. However, as a gay guy raised by a loud mom from Jersey, sometimes I can’t myself from help yelling back a few choice words when I’m called a fag by someone on the street :p

  • This happens to anyone at random. You don’t have to be LGBT, black, white, man, woman, cop, teen, young or old! There are so many nuts ranting out loud on the streets and some actually go off on people. I saw a man the other day on 8th SE just yelling at no one in particular on a hot afternoon. Everyone cleared the sidewalks and avoided him, hoping things wouldn’t escalate. If you do look or even glance at a person who is possibly on some crazy drug, things can get worse. I had a guy stand in front of me at Eastern Market while I was sitting on a bench, eating lunch, minding my own business and on my cell phone. I said politely, Sorry, I’m on the phone. With this, he exploded and yelled, “Don’t you dismiss me!” Yikes. Really, I guess I was supposed to pull out my wallet and give him money. Which would be the stupidest thing to do, to show my wallet where he might just grab it and run. I think you did the right thing, try to de-escalate someone’s anger by agreeing with them and just waiting for them to go away. Then, follow up with a call to the police. He’s probably going on to bother and shout at more people, it had nothing to do with you being gay!

    • Re. “it had nothing to do with you being gay!” — Come on. The guy was ‘yelling at us about how “a man shouldn’t lay with a man” and that “we couldn’t even reproduce.”‘
      .
      Yes, crazy people accost many different kinds of people… but people in groups that are sometimes discriminated against, like LGBT individuals, are particularly at risk for receiving such attacks.

  • This is the type of discrimination LGBT people feel every single day. Is it safe to even hold your partner’s hand, lie next to them on a blanket, or shop together without getting harassed? It’s awful.

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