A 32-YEAR-OLD man was shot and killed in New York last Friday night a few blocks from my Greenwich Village home. He was not killed for money, his watch, or even vengeance. His life was taken from him simply for being who he was: a gay human being.
On the night it happened, my partner of sixteen years, Tony, and I were up the street having dinner with a friend. After dinner, we wandered over to a neighborhood gay bar for a quick drink. We then left our friend and walked arm-in-arm, arriving back home around midnight. The same time that Mark Carson was being assaulted and fatally shot just a few yards away.
He had been followed for several blocks by a man taunting him, yelling out “faggot” and “What are you, a gay wrestler?” When they reached the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, his attacker spat out his final threat, “Do you want to die here?” before shooting Mark in the face with a .38 caliber gun. Mark Carson’s body lay dead just a couple blocks from the Stonewall Bar, the birthplace of the gay rights movement.
In the past few weeks, there have been five attacks directed at gay men, two of them in broad daylight in front of Madison Square Garden. On May 10, two men were hospitalized after being brutalized by a gang of five men. This was following another attack at Madison Square Garden just five days earlier when a gay couple were walking arm-in-arm following a New York Knicks game. They were called “faggots,” then knocked to the ground while a group of men repeatedly kicked and punched them. One of the victims later said that he no longer feels safe as a gay man in New York.
I’ve never been physically attacked for being gay, though I have been chased, and been on the receiving end of the usual antigay slurs. Just two weeks ago, while walking our dog, a guy in a passing car yelled out, “Two fags and a dog.”
During dinner with our friend last Friday night—just a few hours before Mark Carson was killed—he asked what I thought to be a very odd question.
“Do you guys feel comfortable showing affection with each other in public?”
“Of course,” I said without even having to think about it.
Despite the recent Madison Square Garden attacks, I sill felt safe. New York has been my home for more than half my life. I have come to feel very safe here as an out gay man.
“You don’t get nervous about it?” my friend continued. “Yeah, of course, around here it’s fine. In this neighborhood it’s totally safe. But, would you feel comfortable doing it in other neighborhoods?”
“There’s always going to be some insecure jerk yelling something, but I think I’d feel comfortable in almost every neighborhood in New York,” I said.
I never before thought of myself as naive.
Tony and I often walk down the street holding hands. Whenever I meet him for lunch, I give him a quick kiss goodbye as I’m leaving. I don’t think anything of it. I’m just displaying the usual affection shown by any couple. It took me years to accept myself, and I can’t allow anyone to stop me from expressing something as positive as affection.
This past Monday evening, I was walking the same route I take every day with my dog. But this time it gave me a shiver. This time I was marching with 1,500 outraged New Yorkers. We were marching against the violence. We were marching for Mark.
Tony was Facebooking live updates and pictures. The crowd was chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia’s got to go,” and other rallying cries. While I was biting my upper lip to keep from crying.
This is my home. I’ve walked by that corner hundreds of times while holding Tony’s hand. And now, holding his hand again, I felt sick to my stomach. I felt sick because of the injustice. Because of the loss of life. Because my home had been violated. Because I thought we had moved beyond this. Because I felt vulnerable.
With change comes fear. I understand that. And there have been huge changes since the world was shocked when Ellen came out sixteen years ago. Actors and sports stars are now leaping out of the closet. NBA basketball player Jason Collins recently came out. The number of gay couples who are now able to marry is growing. Minnesota just became the twelfth state to ratify same-sex marriage. The tide is definitely turning. One by one, the rest of the states will tumble. As will many of the countries. Last week France became the fourteenth country to legalize gay marriage.
A few short years ago I would have never thought any of this would be possible within my lifetime. Though we still seem to be in a constant state of one step forward, two steps back. There have been 22 hate crime attacks in New York since January, compared to thirteen during the same period last year. And as long as the federal government continues to treat gays as second-class citizens and deny them the right to marry, it will send a message to angry misguided people that homosexuals are not equal and therefor deserve to be at the receiving end of ugly slurs, a kicking boot, or a loaded gun.
Late Monday evening, in the shadow of the rally to end hate violence, another man was being victimized across town; beaten and kicked until he was knocked unconscious as the attacker shouted antigay slurs. The following morning, in lower Manhattan, two more gay men were verbally and physically assaulted.
We are taught to hate. We learn it. We can also learn to accept and embrace. But we need counter-programming: school initiatives that teach diversity, acceptance and tolerance. We need to be taught to celebrate diversity.
Tuesday morning, Tony and I walked our dog down the same route we we had taken the night before. We were not accompanied by 1,500 chanting New Yorkers. It was just us. We walked in silence.
Will I think twice next time I feel like taking Tony’s hand as we walk down the street? I don’t know. I certainly hope not. I can’t allow fear to stop me from being myself.
Do I feel safe?
I’ve been in the same committed relationship for 16 years. I’m not rich. I’m not famous. I yield no political power. I have nothing of great value that anyone would want to steal.
I’m just a normal gay man. Which alone is enough to get me killed.
Below are photos by Tony Acosta from the protest and vigil this week following Carson’s murder: