I was fourteen years old when I was first gay-bashed. My family had emigrated to Canada 3 years earlier, while Romania was still trapped within Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship. But in 1990, the Revolution was behind us. Communism had fallen and my mother, freshly widowed, wanted to see her relatives for the first time since she defected. So, in the summer of 1990, we travelled to Bucharest for the first time in several years.
I included this memory in an earlier incarnation of my memoir, Race Traitor. I wrote about how, after this first incident of hate and gay-bashing, I decided never to be vulnerable again. I’d never be beaten again, I swore. I decided to become a neo-Nazi, one of the strong ones. Not someone who would be rounded up and exterminated, but one who sided with the exterminators. And the consequences of that decision, made one sweltering August day in Bucharest, would haunt my teenage years and lead me to the verge of suicide.
Now, on the heels of the burgeoning gay rights movement in Eastern Europe, I decided to republish it here in the hopes that it will touch someone in some infinitesimal way. Because I have nothing left to hide except my vulnerability. Because, no matter how apathetic or greedy or self-centered people have become in the 21st century, we are still ONE – we remain connected in visceral, undecipherable ways. Even if we live in an indifferent, apathetic world, deep down we all feel the kind of loneliness and desperation that roots itself inside the gut and doesn’t let go without blood-letting.
Every time I ask myself where it all began, memory smashes into me like a fist and I remember the heat of that blistering afternoon and the heat of tears running down my face as I held my best friend Pereta while she lay bloody on a Bucharest street.
We all have a day within our chronology where everything that leads up to it and everything that recedes from it comes to be entrenched in the ebb and flow of the individuals we grow to become. For me, that day came the summer after I turned fourteen, on the bullet-scarred streets of my old hometown.
It’s taken me the better part of twenty years to recognize that a split-second choice made a lifetime ago can come to haunt the rest of your life. Should you hide something from yourself, the memory of it will grow beneath the surface and come to tear its way out of your body like shrapnel, clanking at your feet decades after the explosion.
It was my first time back in Romania since my family had emigrated three years earlier. Across-the-street neighbours and inseparable since we were five, nothing could keep Pereta and I apart. We had only three weeks to spend together before I was to fly back to Toronto, hardly enough time to visit all our old hangouts. Still, we did our best. We went to the cinema, strolled through the park that encircled the lake where we used to play, fed the swans and watched the weeping willows sway toward the water. We shared new secrets and walked hand in hand under the shade of linden trees just as we’d done when we were children returning home from school.
When the boys came up to us in that alleyway, I wanted to run. I tugged on Pereta’s arm, trying to pull her back even as they had us surrounded. There were seven or eight of them, not counting the girlfriends who hovered behind, egging them on. As the circle tightened, their footsteps sounded like a rain of pebbles descending from the rooftops onto the charcoal cobblestones. Their laughter reverberated in my ears, sending my heart racing.
The flash of a dark shadow, a passing pigeon flying overhead, made me glance up suddenly; as I did, I realized all the apartment windows that backed onto this narrow path, both to the left and right of us, had remained shuttered, blocking out the stifling mid-August heat. It was useless to hope for intervention. Even if any residents of those low-rise buildings heard us shouting, decades of living under a communist dictatorship had ingrained in them a sort of unspoken terror to bearing witness, an impulse to look the other way no matter what. Had any windows remained open, no doubt they would be boarded up as soon as the first cry rang out.
My eyes fell back to the boys who were calling us horrible, dirty names, names more dangerous than the rocks they carried in their fists.
I’d like to think there was a brief instant when we could have turned and ran. I don’t know if it would have been possible to avoid what would come, but I do know that Pereta never tried. She stood in front of me, shielding me with her own body, ready to take them on.
The first blow make a sickening impact with her cheekbone, unleashing a stream of blood that coursed down her face. I wasn’t sure if her nose was broken only because her entire face was smeared red. The acrid smell of blood and boy sweat permeated the air around us like a shout, contrasting with the sound of fist against flesh, hollow and muffled in part by Pereta’s body.
She was still fighting back, throwing punches that were returned with a flurry of kicks meant for the both of us even as I stood frozen in place, completely useless, muted by fear and cowardice. In the blood that coated my hands, in the wounded look in Pereta’s eyes, I saw a reflection of my true self.
And in the years that followed, I blamed her for it.