I was nineteen at the time. A country girl working my way through college, never flush with cash, but I’d made some friends in the small gay community of Odessa, Texas.
They were kind enough to include me in treks to the clubs. Since I was young and clueless, they warned me not to go outside alone since bar patrons occasionally were attacked in the parking lot by gay bashers.
Sensible advice, which I followed. One night, well before the bar closed, we piled into a car and headed off to finish the night at someone’s apartment.Before the car rolled off the parking lot, a police car stopped us. Our driver, Richard, hadn’t had a chance to display whether or not he was drunk driving. Not in the space of a few yards, at any rate.
The police officer ordered us all out of the car. Shortly, another police car pulled up and two more officers joined the first.
I was standing next to Richard, a large, generous man fated to die a few years later of AIDS-related complications. In vain he tried to explain that he wasn’t drinking and driving. He’d barely driven at all.
The officers demanded our wallets (and my billfold), then made quite a to-do out of writing down our names and addresses.
There’d been the occasional officer who’d come into the club, circulate around, then stand for a few minutes by the door before leaving. Some of them made a point to be rude.
Richard had said that was indeed the case, then he added, “they’re not all bad.”
Then came that night. The main officer, the one who’d stopped us, waved our IDs in our faces and said he planned to contact our employers. One of the other men in our group broke into tears at that point and said, “Please don’t do that.”
I was freaking by that point and probably would have fallen apart, too, but I looked at Richard. He wasn’t crying. He was saying Yessir and Nosir like the rest of us, but not melting down. So I decided I wouldn’t either.
The main officer, who in my memory had a lizard-like face (but was probably as nondescript as most people), proclaimed and declaimed for the next few minutes. I looked over at the other two officers at one point and realized that they were laughing. Snickering. Having a good time.
We were the night’s entertainment. I went from fearful to angry in a heartbeat, but I had no place to put that emotion. Not then.
Finally, the main officer handed back the IDs. When he reached me, he waved my driver’s license in my face and said I had no business being with these men, that it would get me in trouble. He said I needed to stay away from places like the bar. Then he handed me my ID.
The cops left. We comforted the one man in our group who had totally lost it. He worked in the oilfields and was convinced that he’d be dropped off a derrick or meet some other gruesome fate. Which didn’t happen, thankfully.
For me, it was a formative experience. I learned going to a gay bar meant I was asking for trouble-but I kept going anyway. That being gay or a lesbian meant getting dirt kicked on you with no means of fighting back. That cops were trouble. It meant knowing, at an atomic level, that I was a member of a despised group. Possibly worthless. Definitely up against the odds.
Yet I couldn’t forget one fact: Richard didn’t cry. He remained strong, even dignified. I might well be cursed with this trait of suspect sexuality, but I didn’t have to play the victim.
In my lifetime, I’ve had interactions with police-most positive, a couple most decidedly not-but through it all I’ve been “blessed” with the fact that I’m white.
My whiteness provides me with a layer of protection when I’m shopping in a store, and decides at what level I’ll be profiled by law enforcement during my ordinary, non-lawbreaking day.
Yet I can’t forget what it was like during those years of visiting gay bars and feeling police eyes on me. Knowing that it could all go so very badly, for no reason at all other than for my not being straight.
In a growing number of places, being LGBT is a nonfactor in people’s lives. Law enforcement is less inclined these days to target us even though incidents still occur. Yet in many places both at home and abroad LGBTs, particularly those who are transgender, are still very much at risk for being charged for driving-or walking or breathing-while gay.
That’s one strong reason why the travesty of justice which is the targeting of African-Americans by frightened white people, should resonate with the LGBT community, even those of us who happen to be white. We may or may not be in a less targeted category, and may not have to worry anymore about enduring police harassment.
I ask that, even those of us who are young, pale, and relatively privileged, please honor the memory of people like my friend, Richard, who kept his pride intact that night outside an Odessa gay bar. Because of him, I didn’t feel so alone.
When we see police acting like soldiers and getting it oh so wrong, remember that we once were villains too, nothing more than the usual suspects – and can be again some night, some place.
And for those of us who are people of color, who are transgender, who read as being “Other,” what should we expect from those who care? More than words of understanding and a handkerchief to wipe away the blood.
If there’s a march you can join, join it. If there’s a cause you can actively aid, do so. These are the years of the Unified No. No to ethnic targeting, No to fear-based politics, No to a system that favors the rich over the rest of us.