I've begun volunteering for a queer organization and, for the most part, I really enjoy it. Except for the first event.
The event was simple enough. Show up, staff a table between the acts of a high school play, and talk about queer things. Pretty much old hat, really. As a gay trans man on the asexual spectrum, I spend a lot of my time explaining what the dependent clause of this sentence means.
Ultimately, my boss had to cancel, and sans table and pamphlets, I was on my own at the high school. That was rather unfortunate, as it took about five minutes for me to wonder if I ought to run for safety.
Trigger warning for anti-queer hate speech and what it does to your brain and body, regardless of the source.
The entryway leading to the auditorium was covered with large posters with brightly colored messages of love. As I'd never been to this high school before and hadn't been told what exactly the play was about, I wasn't sure if the posters were connected with the play or if someone well-loved in the school had just died. Still, it's a very good thing those signs were out there, because otherwise, I would have walked very quickly back to my car.
Going into the auditorium, there's a set of double doors to block out noise. It's a pretty standard set-up, but it does mean you effectively pass through a cramped, grey room on your way in. Nothing problematic about that at all.
Unless, say, someone has plastered the walls and doors with "GOD HATES FAGS" and "BURN THE FAGS" signs. They were everywhere. I'd say they covered about 70% of the wall space. In a tiny, enclosed space, they loomed from literally every corner. It was essentially like walking into a tiny box full of spikes specifically designed for you.
At that point, I did what any fag with a shred of self-preservation would do and got myself out of there. I stood in the lobby with a pounding heart. Trying to figure out what was going on, I watched parents and students go in without a murmur or a flinch. The women staffing the ticket booth looked rather bored and unapproachable in the way of tired adults who have hit their limit on teenaged interaction. I checked the other set of double doors and found that this tiny room was also covered with "KILL ALL THE FAGS" signs.
Here, my thought process went something like this: "We were supposed to come here to talk to these people, we must have been invited; what the hell is this; I was told Westboro Baptist might be picketing, did they get inside and protest against two entryways; seriously, what the hell is this; if I ask why the posters are there and the things are there out of real hate, they may identify me as a target for their real hate; why is no one blinking an eye?"
After some panicked dithering about, I checked the handwriting on the happy posters outside and the hateful posters inside. They matched. Just a dramatic effect for the play, it seemed.
Having paid five bucks to get in and driven half an hour to get there, I went inside and sat down in the half-filled auditorium and waited for my pulse to quiet down.
Then, a tiny miracle. In the aisle, a man asked a student what the posters were there for. Though the woman at his side was clearly his wife, he sounded offended. Here was the sign of safety I'd been looking for. When the student answered that they were there for the play, I piped up, saying, "As one of those fags, I was a bit scared."
She rushed to assure me that nothing of the kind was meant, that she herself was bisexual. "It's just for the play. No one actually feels like that." Here, was her unspoken, possibly unthought caveat. No one feels like that here. If no one felt like that, those posters wouldn't be here in imitation.
Though the play itself didn't make much of a dent on me, that entryway has taught me a few very unpleasant things.
First, that it doesn't take an active show of hate to throw me off and frighten me, especially when I'm alone.
Second and more importantly, that hate speech is theoretical to many. As the audience seemed to be almost entirely comprised of white cishets (cisgender heterosexual people, because "straight" doesn't cover it when there are straight trans* people), I imagine the flight-or-fight response hadn't occurred for most. For me, it was the most memorable part of the evening. We all had to pass through the hate-plastered set of double-doors, but to many, it was merely a curiosity. To those who set it up, it was simply for dramatic effect. A death threat is only words, as long as it's not aimed at you.
It certainly drove a point home, but not, I suspect, the point they intended.