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Gay Men Should Understand Bathroom Terror

Gay Men Should Understand Bathroom Terror


James Rowe, like many boys who grew up to be gay or bi, remembers bathrooms and locker rooms as places of fear. The one positive from those experiences — more empathy for the trans plight.

I remember being called "faggot" as long as I think I've been able to understand English. Years before I would even know what that word meant, I would hear it on what felt like a daily basis. On my way to school, at school and then again on my way home -- "faggot, faggot, faggot!"

Most often the look in the eyes of people who called me that word was one of hate.

I couldn't understand what I was doing at just 6, 7, and 8 years old that could make people hate me so much. At first I would tell my mom that people were picking on me, but eventually the shame was too embarrassing to talk about, and I kept most of my feelings about the hurt inside.

Unfortunately, the name-calling continued, and the fear inside grew as I grew.

In fifth grade, my teacher began to use female pronouns to talk about me to my classmates. That was the moment I realized I wasn't safe around other students and was no longer safe from my teachers, either.

But it was what happened to me in seventh grade that would probably have the greatest impact on my adult life. One day after gym class when we were getting changed in the locker room, the name-calling escalated to violence when four of my classmates took my legs and arms, carrying me into a bathroom stall and shoving my face into the toilet. If only my adult self had been there to protect me.

From that moment on, I was terrified to use a public restroom or locker room. I did what I could to avoid using the locker room and refused to use the bathroom until I got home from school. It's amazing what you can force your body to do when you're afraid for your life.

I managed to skip gym class from 10th grade to almost all of 12th grade without getting caught, which provided a little relief. But my fear of the locker room was only replaced by my fear of getting caught not going to gym class.

After high school I had hoped things would be different. I imagined a life where I would never have to be afraid again like I was when I was young.

I came out as gay at 18 and tried to ignore the fear that coming out meant all those name-callers were right all along. I began to finally embrace, or tried to at least, who I really was.

I was accepted into a performing arts college and was excited about the possibilities of an education that didn't involve fear -- it was a performing arts college, after all. But that was short-lived, since the first thing my college roommate said to me when we met was "You're not a faggot, are you?"

For years I believed that I was called "faggot" because people could tell I was gay long before I even knew. But the reality is, people were calling me hurtful words not because I was gay, but because of how I expressed my gender as a male child, and then as a male adult.

I also believe I subconsciously became aware of this, and over time I altered behaviors that didn't conform to society's expectations of my gender. I learned to become, as best I could, the masculine person society expected me to be.

My biggest takeaway from years of "correcting" my gender expression is this -- as a man myself, I get to define what that means to me. I don't now nor have I ever needed anyone, be they family, friends, teachers, roommates, clergy, or strangers, to define for me what it means to be a man.

And for me, being a man means standing up for what is right and speaking out against discrimination against all my siblings -- especially those who have been most marginalized both inside and outside the LGBTQI community.

So today I make this pledge: to stand firmly in solidarity with all of my transgender and gender-nonconforming siblings as we battle laws across the country that seek to harm and humiliate an already vulnerable community through lies and fear.

And to all lawmakers across the country who are working non-stop to create anti-LGBTQI laws that will perpetuate the fear I've carried for a lifetime -- I can't help but wonder.

Are you the same people that called me "faggot" every day?

Are any of you the same people that grabbed my arms and legs decades ago and forced my head into a toilet? If you're not, then I hope you'll take this moment to realize that what you're trying to do is actually spreading the very same hate I lived with every day for decades.

I know what it's like to be afraid in a public restroom, and I don't want anyone to have to live with the same fears that I have experienced throughout my life. That's how I know these transphobic bathroom bills are so harmful.

Empowering the bullies in this country both young and old with anti-LGBTQI legislation has offered me and countless others a lifetime of fear and shame and that must once and for all stop now. Everyone deserves to live a life with dignity -- and bathroom bills across the country are denying LGBTQI people that basic human right.

It's time to stop defending the bullies and start defending the bullied. We've waited long enough! I know I have.

James RoweJAMES ROWE is the director of Believe Out Loud, the leading platform for LGBTQ-affirming Christianity. Rowe is a seasoned event planner and has led development and volunteer programs within interfaith and LGBT equality institutions including the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which advocates for LGBTQ youth. Based in New York City, James is a student of American Sign Language and serves as both a board member and sign language interpreter for the historic Anna Crusis Women's Choir, the longest-running women's choir in the United States.

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