Seven years ago I was a college freshman in a long-term relationship with my senior boyfriend, Shawn. I was young and naive, and Shawn was older than me but still young and naive. Together we were roommates, lovers, and best friends.
Shawn and I were open about our relationship to most of our friends and family -- and, given that he was the president of a big student organization -- pretty much the entire school. By many standards, we were out out. Yet I felt like we were still so in at the same time -- always playing up our masculinity and "passing" as two straight buddies to anyone we encountered outside of the small bubble that was the safe zone of our Connecticut college campus. Random people on the street "didn't matter," according to Shawn, so why should we openly love each other in front of them?
This logic worked fine for us in the beginning, as it was pretty much all I was comfortable with anyways - but after about a year, I started wanting to kiss him when we'd be out to lunch and he'd say something adorable. Or I'd long to touch his back while we walked through the mall on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I playfully tried to provoke Shawn during these moments by saying antagonizing things like, "I dare you to hold my hand right now. Come on -- do it! What are you so afraid of, wuss?!"
I was joking about the "wuss" part, but meant the other stuff.
Eventually, I turned Shawn's "these people don't matter" defense against him, arguing that the inconsequentiality of strangers' opinions was all the more reason for us to engage in whatever the fuck kind of PDA we wanted to.
"You don't get it, Nic. It doesn't work like that -- we're two guys," he'd contend, "Us holding hands would just cause a scene. And for what? You don't know what kind of bigots there are out there."
That was usually my cue to try to interject with a rebuttal about how it was 2006 and bigots were so not even a thing anymore, but I'd only get so far as, "Oh, my gah -- " before he'd interrupt me and say something like, "Nobody has to know we're a couple -- only we do. Isn't that enough for you?"
Shawn and I broke up shortly before I turned 20, and then I started dating.
Liberated in much the same way that Mariah Carey was after she divorced Tommy Mottola and released her seminal album Butterfly, I started wearing tighter clothes and rebelliously allowing myself to do stereotypically "gay" things (such as making nuanced Mariah Carey references in everyday conversations and/or personal essays).
One night I was on a date and having a great time with a guy downtown when I first vaguely tested the waters of PD(g)A(y). My date and I were approaching a busy intersection -- our hands just tentatively touching as the white "walk" signal shone before us -- when all of a sudden a pickup truck full of men cut us off out of nowhere. As our walking came to an abrupt stop and we regained our composure, one of the men in the truck stuck his head out and yelled "Sparkli-i-ing!" at us in an affected lispy, high-pitched, unoriginally-and-maliciously-making-fun-of-the-two-gay-guys-crossing-the-street tone.
Then he tossed an empty Budweiser can at us.
Equally humiliated, my date and I barely acknowledged the (admittedly trivial) act of hate that had just been perpetrated against us. We just looked at each other with facial expressions that seemed to mutually say, "Assholes," and never actually spoke of it out loud.
As I drove home that night, I couldn't believe that it was now 2008 and bigots actually were still a thing. I thought back to my would-be argument of two years ago and felt defeated.
I went to bed a few hours later still thinking about the incident -- wondering who from Shawn's past had called him "sparkling" and when.
I had more or less forgotten about the 2006 episode until last fall when I spent the entire duration of Hurricane Sandy trapped in my apartment in Stamford, Conn., with the man I was seeing at the time. We were both in a very super-infatuated-and-obsessed-with-each-other-OMG-husbands-maybe? zone at the time, so when the opportunity to be stranded and out of work together for a few days came up, we were pretty much giddy.
After two nights of living in our own little bubble of thunder-soundtracked blooming romance, we had gotten word that my favorite taco restaurant was among the first in town to be reopening in the wake of the storm. We decided it was time to finally break out of the box that is my studio apartment and have a proper date night.
On the walk to the restaurant, we were finding it very difficult to resist being our naturally smitten selves. We were eventually stopped at a light where I kept saying things like, "Oh, my god, tacos!!!" when we finally gave in and exchanged kisses while holding on to each other tightly -- the kind of scene that is acted out by straight couples on a daily basis.
Then a car pulled up right next to us, stopped, and began to roll its window down. My companion was still solely focused on showering me with affection, but I caught a glimpse of the vehicle from the corner of my eye and got nervous. It was dark and I couldn't really make out the driver's face, but I immediately assumed bigotry as my heart raced and prepared itself for a "sparkling" or a beer can or worse.
And then a sweet, kind, and possibly Southern woman lovingly popped her head out of the window and said, "Y'all are so cute together -- I love it! Have a great night!"
My companion laughed and said thank you while I just let out an enormous sigh.
So here we are, five years after "sparkling," six months after Sandy, and seven years after Shawn -- and though I wish I could say that the bigotry in the world ended when the nice lady called the two gay guys on the Stamford street corner cute, it seems that bigots are more alive than ever. A "wave" of antigay hate crimes in New York City? What would college freshman me have to say about that? If Shawn didn't want to hold my hand in public back then, he sure as hell wouldn't want to hold it now that we have these kinds of headlines populating our Facebook feeds.
But we should have held hands then, and I believe we still should today.
The thing about bigots is that they are filled with hate. And the thing about hate is that it is, in its simplest form, fear. These people are afraid of something. Maybe seeing us proudly stand in our truth makes them aware of just how incapable they are of doing the same. Or maybe they feel threatened by our happiness. (Or maybe they're just assholes; I guess I shouldn't totally discount that theory.)
So are we supposed to relinquish the power inherent in our living and loving authentically simply because we never know when we'll come up against these fearful attackers? No. Instead of responding to fear with fear, I suggest that we react with more love than ever. We can start with love in our own community and extend it to those who support us -- and then extend it even to those who don't. Love is an energy that heals and forgives and strengthens, and yes, I know I'm sounding trite. But these cliches exist for a very real and powerful reason.
My heart hurts deeply as I pray for the healing of everyone who has been affected by the recent hateful actions of a few misguided bigots. But it is for these victims and their families that I will choose to keep on loving, and it is for them that I will choose to keep on holding hands, keep on living openly, and -- yes, say it with me -- keep on sparkling.
NICOLAS DiDOMIZIO is a writer from Connecticut. He blogs at KeyChangesBlog.com, tweets @ctnicolas, and is currently working on his first book. He also works in the music department of MTV Networks. He holds a master's from New York University and a bachelor's from Western Connecticut State University.