When I dropped down on one knee and asked my sweetie if she’d marry me, I thought the risk was that she’d say no; I didn’t understand that doing it publicly would unleash a torrent of criticism, mockery, verbal abuse, and death threats.
Last Friday, I did propose, and despite both my girlfriend’s and my own ambivalence about the institution of marriage, I acknowledged publicly that, yes, I did want to spend the rest of my life with her and wanted to do it in a publicly sanctioned form. My girlfriend, Liz, is a bit larger-than-life, the nicest woman in the world, a passionate LGBT cultural competency trainer, but, as she says, “the fiercest 120 pounds you’ll ever meet.” With a woman like that, it’s go big or go home. So I chose the most fearless place I could think of to pop the biggest question: the central hall of the White House, in front of 500 other amazing LGBT community advocates at the president’s annual LGBT Pride reception. It felt like she took forever to say yes, but she finally did, and it was amazing.
Until the hate started.
I run the Network for LGBT Health Equity at the Fenway Institute; she runs the National LGBT Cancer Network. We both train people across the country on cultural competency — teaching them how to counter that stigma in health care settings. So we both know very well how discrimination negatively affects health. For example, in a recent study, researchers found that LGBT people who had experienced major prejudice-related events were nearly three times more likely to suffer a serious physical health problem the next year.
After the video of the proposal got around, it was like the curtain of politeness that hides most LGBT stigma was ripped back. People posted hundreds of comments; many were shockingly harsh.
It boggles the mind,. How can people take something so loving and twist it into hate?
Our friends and many strangers rallied around us in support, offering warm words in person and on Facebook. “Stay strong,” they said, and we did. “Don’t read what the haters write,” they said, but we were mesmerized. It was a painful but rare opportunity to learn how the right really views us, what they write on their own blogs when they think we are not watching. When I found pictures of Liz on the Internet with the words “cover it in gas and set it on fire,” it was not only impossible to look away but also dangerous to do so. We needed to know if and when the threats became personal. As a trans person, I’ve needed to watch out for those threats my whole life. It’s how I avoided the man with the baseball bat in Iowa and the mob in Illinois. And frankly, most of the hate was directed at me.
In fairness, we received many more sentiments of love than hate. Many people’s hearts were touched by the proposal, and we were viewed as brave role models. We watched total strangers defend us in the more polite public forums, flagging the most abusive comments until they were pulled. How can I thank those total strangers? You have filled us with such appreciation and reinforced our hope.
The profound experience of the last seven days has reinforced for us the necessity of exposing the ugly hate, the undisguised homophobia and transphobia. First, because it is real and loud, even if we pretend not to listen to it. Second, because it negatively impacts our health, even if we don’t consciously recognize the link between discrimination and illness. And finally, because while Liz and I have a huge circle of supportive friends, colleagues, and family to help keep the hate at bay, most LGBT youth do not. As adults, it is our job to protect our fragile youth who come upon this vitriol and may wonder if it is true about them, if LGBT people are “mutants,” if transgender people are “its,” if they will be hated for being who they are.
Today we have posted videos responding to this odd phenomenon. To our many well-wishers, thank you. Liz and I will be fine. Please, if you really want to support us, share these videos widely so youth can see them too. Mostly, if you see something hateful online, say something. We all need to stand up for our youth.
SCOUT, PhD, is the director of the Network for LGBT Health Equity at the Fenway Institute. LIZ MARGOLIES, LCSW, is the executive director of the National LGBT Cancer Network.