A few weeks ago I was bicycling when a man yelled “faggot” at me. Though the interaction lasted just a split second, I kept replaying it in my mind.
My first thought was: How did he know I’m gay? I’m a 56-year-old man, wearing a helmet, khakis, a button-down shirt, tie, and running shoes. So no, he couldn’t have known. Maybe “faggot” was just his all-purpose insult.
I felt angry. But why? I’m proud of who I am. Since my first year in medical school I have been open about my sexual orientation, and that has not harmed my career. I feel accepted by my colleagues, my staff, and a broad group of political leaders. I am blessed with loving relationships: my partner, my children, my parents, and my friends.
I would not have felt as angry if the man had yelled “stupid” at me. So how did he get so deep under my skin?
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There was more than just anger there. A clue: I felt relief that I was not with my adolescent son. I would not have wanted him to hear someone ridicule my masculinity. And with that, I suddenly connected to the shame that I felt when I was around his age and worried about my male friends thinking that I was, well, a faggot. Maybe that’s why I was so angry; this jerk had dragged me from my happy life back to those painful times.
How lucky I am to live in a time and in a place where hearing gay slurs is shocking. I know other sexual minorities are not so lucky. Earlier this week, the editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine was hacked to death. And it’s not just sexual minorities who are at risk. Around the world, members of ethnic and racial minorities experience discrimination.
The biking incident showed me why researchers believe much of the poorer health outcomes seen in racial/ethnic and sexual minorities in our country are the result of living with discrimination. That jolt of anger was not good for my health. What if I felt it every day? What if I had to withstand attacks without protesting for fear of being further discriminated against?
Bigotry doesn’t go away just because the Supreme Court affirms your equal rights, any more than racism goes away because an African-American man is elected president. But the societal response to bigotry matters a lot.
When I was growing up I was ashamed because I had no positive gay role models, and there was no sense of support for gays or other sexual minorities. Today the National Basketball Association is threatening to move its All-Star game if North Carolina doesn’t repeal its anti-LGBT law.
We can’t eliminate bigotry, but through our laws and deeds we can affirm the dignity and grace of all. It will always make me angry to be insulted, but nothing calms my nerves like equal protection under law, and nothing raises me up like the support of the broader community.
Mitchell Katz is the director of the Los Angeles County Health Agency and a practicing internist.