A few weeks ago I was bicycling past St. Vincent's Medical Center on 3rd Street when a man yelled "faggot" at me. I caught his face — thin, bearded and sneering — before he sped his car in the opposite direction. Though the whole interaction, if one can call it that, lasted just a split second, I kept replaying it in my mind.
My first thought was: How did he know that I'm gay? I am a 56-year-old man, wearing a helmet, khakis, a button-down shirt, tie, and running shoes. Nothing stylish. No visible tattoos, piercings or tinted hair (that's all mainstream now anyway, isn't it?). So no, OK, he couldn't have known. Maybe "faggot" was just his all-purpose insult, just the meanest thing he could think of to yell at me.
I felt an unmistakable jolt of anger. 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 my career has not been harmed by my openness. 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.
Would I have felt as angry if the sneering man had yelled "stupid" at me? I would not have: I would have thought, "Tough luck, buddy. We cyclists have the right to use the road too." So how did he get so deep under my skin?
But it wasn't just anger, there was more there. A clue: I felt relief that my adolescent son was not with me. I would have been embarrassed. I would not have wanted him to hear someone ridicule my masculinity. And with that, I suddenly connected to the feeling of shame that I had when growing up, when I was around his age, when I worried about my male friends thinking that I was, well, a faggot. And maybe that's why I was so angry; this big-mouthed jerk had dragged me from my happy, successful life back to those painful times.
How lucky I am to live in a time and in a place where someone yelling gay slurs is shocking. I know that other sexual minorities are not so lucky — that others in this country and abroad operate under the near-constant fear of insult and even attack. Earlier this week, the editor of Bangladesh's first LGBT magazine was hacked to death in Dhaka. And it's not just sexual minorities who are at risk, of course. Around the world, members of ethnic and racial minorities experience discrimination in the workplace, in housing, in educational institutions, in the courts, and in the healthcare setting.
Unlike me, people of color don't have the opportunity to "pass" if they so choose. They "come out" every time they walk into the room.
The 3rd Street incident captured for me why public health and medical researchers believe that 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 would happen to me if I felt that jolt 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 Assn. (the National Basketball Assn.!) 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.