Last Saturday we awoke to some vicious knocks on our door, and declined to answer.
It was another block party on our street – another one of dubious legality where we were given less than ten hours of notice before its start – one situated plumb in the middle of our first long weekend together this year. We keep to ourselves, and no one thinks to ask us to sign their petition, or remind us there is a party upcoming, or ask us we have anything to contribute (such as, I don’t know, my mixing equipment? But, I digress).
So, we declined to answer. The first time. But a few minutes later the knocks came again, insistent and vicious.
We had hoped to sleep in – at the back of the house, away from the noise.
No such luck.
I dressed quickly, pieces patched together, and flung open the door to be greeted by an unfamiliar face. White, stubbly, firepluggish but not so intimidating, a tattoo or scar on his cheek next to his eye.
“Izzat your car?” Gesturing broadly at a boxy sedan parked a few spots to the right of our door. Already a tent had been struck on our sidewalk, nearly obstructing our front steps.
I replied sharply. “Look, we don’t own a car, and even if we did we wouldn’t have to move it for the block party. That’s not how the permit works.”
I closed (not slammed) the door to an echo of protest (“Hey, I’ll break your door down and kick your ass”), but that was a wolf not big or bad enough to warrant my concern on a summer Saturday morning. I’ve lived in South Philly long enough to know an idle threat.
Nothing else happened, and several hours of booming, inescapable music later we left. We were dressed as sharp as my earlier words for Erika’s engagement party, and everyone on the block saw us depart just as the daylight was ripening into a pretty golden evening.
The party, which is a topic for another time, was wonderful. The two parts that are germane to this story are that I drank quite a bit of Bombay Sapphire and we that took a cab home shortly after 3 a.m.
I stepped (stumbled) out of the cab, intent on a trip to the bathroom and the chance to get into some more comfortable clothes (having entrusted Elise with my wallet and the ability to do arbitrary math).
At the steps I fetched (fumbled for?) my keys, and when I looked up I was greeted with black magic marker scrawl across our door:
Steer Clear of Queer
Was it the message or the gin that sent me into hysterical sobs, pounding on the door with my fists until it was feeling unsure on its hinges?
Does it matter? What was I supposed to feel, or do, the first time a message of discrimination I’ve heard off and on for years at parties and bars and from passing cars found itself tangible and branded on my home?
The next part is a blur: Elise getting to the door, our exchange, my dash into the house only to collapse on the floor, crying, screaming:
“This is our house; I just want to live here.”
Elise, rational and sober, called 911, and discovered as she shut the door that our newfound aphorism had been accompanied by an even more tangible reminder – used cat litter fed painstakingly through our mail slot so that it would be swept across our threshold when the door was opened.
I’ll spare you the visit of the police, protective and sympathetic, or my repeated calls to Lindsay, my voice splintering and breaking as I screamed to her that I didn’t understand, upset as much about myself as with my demographic-sharing double, the straight white male who thought this sort of thing was okay to go writing on someone’s door because he didn’t have enough muscles or force when he opened it or because he left the house in a wrong-colored shirt, and also how I would be happy for people to write on my door and shove crap through my mail slot for the rest of my life as long as they left Lindsay and Kate and our gay neighbors (yes, the irony) alone and in peace.
I would never compare this experience to the discrimination that other people endure every day. It was passive – intimidation from a coward. It’s not even really about me. It’s not even really offensive, as a statement.
Yet while I would never compare, it remains that those words were written on our home, and that the crime of petty vandalism was undoubtedly about hate. I articulated as much to the lieutenant in my living room, feeling strangely sober and my stare fixed on the floor.
“Do you feel that this was a hate crime?
“Yes, officer. All that matters is what he thought of me when he opened the door, and the intended effect of his message.”
“I’m so sorry this happened to you and your roommate.”
“Fiancee,” I whispered, more to myself than to him. “We’re getting married.”
With Sunday came concern; we had no way of knowing if the vandalism was an arbitrary one-time event or the first step of continuing harassment; we didn’t know if it was the work of a single actor or a faceless group of disgruntled neighbors. But we discovered that – after the initial shock – we were not concerned about the words on our door.
To scurry out that morning to clean it off would mean we didn’t want the neighbors to see. To cover it up surreptitiously by cover of darkness would mean we didn’t want to be seen responding to it.
Both would show that the message met its mark – that it had intimidated us. We may be a lot of things – maybe even a little queer – but one of them certainly isn’t easily intimidated.
I’ve been avoiding this box all this week because I’ve been uncomfortable with my own voice – the voice that got me into this mess – just as I haven’t felt comfortable in my own living room. Now that our door is finally back to its single solid color (plus a peephole) I also feel okay to return here, my virtual home, to begin to describe how I feel … how I’ve felt the graffiti on my own skin all week, how our house feels different now, and how every time I approach our door I am ever-so-nauseous in anticipation.
As to why we ultimately decided to leave the words on display until our landlord could have them painted over in broad daylight for the entire block to witness, Elise blogged it better than I ever could, so I’ll let her speak for me:
[I]t doesn’t reflect on us, it reflects on the people who did this and on the people who allowed it to happen. It’s a reminder to us of what emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually small people are capable of (though we would still see it there whether we painted it over or not), and it’s a reminder to everyone else that while this time we were the target, it could just as easily be them, next time.
They probably have not realized this, yet.