Monday, June 13, 2016

Unsafety zone

In the summer of 2000 I made my first trip to West Hollywood to go to a LGBT bookstore called A Different Light. Those were the days before, when we had to drive to bookstores to browse for available publications. I was just starting to read coming-out stories and wanted to follow up on certain gay authors whom I found to be accessible. Barnes & Noble bookstore had a dismal gay and lesbian selection so, like a good cross-cultural missionary, I decided I would go out of my comfort zone to gain access to points of view different from what I was used to. I just wanted to understand.

A Different Light bookstore was located on a busy main street that ran through the heart of West Hollywood. I found plenty of interesting volumes to browse: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, history. As I was flipping through a theology book, three young men entered the store. They walked in together, laughing and talking loudly, and it was clear they had come in to harass the customers, not buy books. Tension filled the entire store as the cashier ordered them out. I was standing about twenty feet from the entrance and watched them walk almost past me before they turned around and exited.

It was my first time at a LGBT bookstore and that happened. It never occurred to me that by being there I'd have to worry about my safety. Those three guys didn't care who I was, a straight pastor's wife doing a bit of cross-cultural research. If they had brought guns I would have been one among many casualties of another hate crime in West Hollywood. That's when it dawned on me: LGBT people have to worry about their safety all the time. The incident gave me the barest glimpse into that reality.

That didn't stop me from making return visits to the bookstore or, later on, attending LGBT conferences and events. But I'm aware now that safety is something I can take for granted in a way that my LGBT friends cannot. And what happened in Orlando yesterday morning has done untold damage to what little sense of safety and security they have fought so hard to achieve. Until you've been on the receiving end of anti-gay hostility, it's hard to explain how frightening it is.