Once upon a time, I was very nearly beaten up and potentially shot, simply because of who I am. This story isn’t just about the horrors of homophobia, but also the difference a single person can make—how one brave soul kept me safe and changed the way I view the world.
I was sixteen and still in high school when I first came out of the closet. This didn’t really affect how people treated me. I’d already been called a fag numerous times, usually by guys that caught me checking them out. Once everyone knew I was gay (instead of just suspecting it) the slurs came unprovoked. Occasionally this made me angry, but usually I shrugged it off. Kansas might not have the most cultured reputation, but for the most part, I faced relatively little homophobia. Until Zack came along. That’s not his real name of course, but it’s damn close.
The first I ever heard of Zack was when someone told me he wanted to kick my ass. Good for him, I thought. I didn’t think about it again until I was grabbing some take-out with a friend who pointed Zack out. On the way back to my car, Zack confirmed the rumors by following me outside. I made it to my car at a deceptively calm pace, getting inside just before Zack pounded on the driver-side window, telling me to get out. I chose to drive away.
A few weeks later, I was spending my Saturday night hanging out in a fast food parking lot. Yeah. As I said, Kansas isn’t exactly the epicenter of culture. Zack must have spotted me while picking up some burgers, because the next thing I knew, a car parked and three guys got out. Not totally unusual, since the parking lot was full of teenagers, but I soon recognized Zack. He didn’t make a move right away, keeping his distance and giving me the evil eye. I had enough time to dart into the fast food joint where my closest guy friend—one of my biggest defenders—had been eating. I knew he’d back me up. Unfortunately, he had already left. I was on my own.
Maybe it’s crazy that I didn’t hop in my car and flee again, but like David Henry in Kamikaze Boys, sometimes you have to face the inevitable, even if it means taking a beating. Like a pathetic cowboy heading to a showdown he’s doomed to lose, I returned to the parking lot. Then it began. Zack started making threats: He was going to beat me up, I wouldn’t get away this time, and I would be sorry for being a faggot. That last bit stung. I’ve always been proud of who I am, but now that would come at a price I really didn’t want to pay. Zack was furious. I was terrified. What neither of us counted on was Kati Coolon. That is her real name, because she’s awesome and deserves to be recognized.
At this point, I didn’t know Kati terribly well. Regardless, she stepped right up and started shouting back. I hadn’t been saying much of anything, since all my energy was going into not shaking. Kati became my voice. There aren’t any sailors in Kansas, but if there were, they would have blushed and covered their ears after hearing her. But Zack didn’t back down. Instead his hand went menacingly to the inside pocket of his jacket. Then he made his biggest mistake and turned his insults on Kati.
Apparently I was one of the few people that didn’t know Kati well. While no angel, she has a good heart, and someone as kind and bright as her doesn’t go through life without making a few friends. When Zack started insulting her, all the people fond of Kati came to her defense. Soon the parking lot was divided into two halves. On one side was a slightly less frightened gay guy, Kati Coolon, and a ton of her friends. On the other were three greatly outnumbered homophobes. Once news spread about what was going on, even more people came to take our side, and it wasn’t just Kati they were protecting. The crowd started chastising Zack for wanting to beat someone up for being gay.
Needless to say, Zack left with his tail tucked between his legs. That was the last I ever saw of him, but someone did tell me later that Zack was famous for carrying a gun he liked to show off. That gave me the chills. It wasn’t hard to imagine what could have happened if Kati hadn’t been there. Maybe that hand wouldn’t have come out of Zack’s jacket in such a public place, but its meaning was clear. Gay people die because of homophobia. I wouldn’t have been the first or last to do so, had events played out differently. Instead, one person chose to stand by me, to put herself in the crossfire and take a stand against hate. Kati is amazing, the coolest of the cool, but each and every one of us is capable of doing what she did. I like to think that Zack never messed with me again because he saw how unpopular his opinions were. If we take a stand against homophobia, not letting even a casual slur go unchallenged, more and more people will learn that their ignorance won’t be tolerated.
As for my personal hero, I’m happy to say that Kati and I quickly became best friends. We’ve had countless adventures together, been roommates, and broken quite a few laws. Nearly twenty years later, we’re still thick as thieves. Despite Zack’s ill intentions, that night he helped create one of the most loving friendships I’ve ever known. And now, when I read negative news about states voting down gay marriage and I’m tempted to lose faith, I look back at how ordinary people, even in a small Kansas town, can rise to the occasion. Sometimes all it takes is one brave soul that won’t take hate for an answer.
The Hop Against Homophobia is an attempt by over 250 m/m authors, reviewers and publishers to stand together and create awareness of homophobia
Jay Bell is the author of Something Like Summer, and more recently, Kamikaze Boys, a book about finding love in the face of hate.