St. James Gate Publick House, a family-friendly traditional Irish pub in downtown Maplewood, has long had a special place in my heart. It was the first restaurant my partner and I dined at when we were shopping for houses out here. I was seven months pregnant with our firstborn and the mac-and-cheese satisfied a craving I didn’t even know I had. Later, when we had one child, and then two, “the Pub,” as it is affectionately known by loyalists, was always on the short list of go-to places when we were too tired to cook, which was often. I can’t say the vibe was gay, exactly, but it was friendly enough and I don’t think we ever felt unwelcome.
Which is why I was so very sad to learn of the incident that occurred there on January 7th. I was not an eyewitness and I have not spoken with either side, so all I know is what I've read in the news. Some time around 1:30 a.m., there was an altercation between a bartender, James Meade, and a patron, Ethan Kresofsky, that involved insults, spitting, punching and biting. Each has charged the other with assault and each has pled not guilty. For the time being, both cases will move forward. Trials are pending, if that’s the correct legal terminology.
Again, I don't know what happened or who was at fault. Tensions have been known to run high among the well-lubricated in a bar around closing time, particularly on college football night, and although I haven’t seen ‘last call’ in many moons, my guess is that Maplewood is no exception to that well-worn rule.
So I'd like to focus on just one piece of the story, one very significant element that demands attention, regardless of who instigated or perpetuated the fracas: Kresofsky alleges that early on in the dispute, Meade said this: "What are you, some kind of faggot?"
This is the statement that had members of the LGBT community, many of whom regularly patronize St. James Gate, alarmed. There were cries for a boycott almost immediately from some, while others waited to see whether management would come forward with a strong statement denouncing the use of such an epithet, if indeed it was uttered. But the bar’s official statement neither confirmed nor denied Meade’s use of the slur and called the altercation “an unfortunate and isolated incident.” While it did state, “we want everyone to feel welcome at St. James Gate,” it did not refer to the LGBT community at all, much less condemn homophobia, which is what many were hoping for. (It’s worth noting here that the bartender in question is also the son of the owner, which understandably makes things all the more complicated for management.)
Joe Strupp, longtime Maplewood resident and intrepid reporter who publishes a news blog called the Maplewoodian, interviewed James Meade’s brother, John, who said his brother did not know that Kresofsky was gay. “When you don’t know somebody and somebody says a name, that doesn’t mean it’s a hate crime or a biased crime and I think we’re being treated unfairly to be honest with you,” he told Strupp.
In other words, since his brother did not know the alleged victim was gay, his use of the slur was somehow random and, though derisive of gay people as a whole, did not target this particular gay specifically. Following this logic, it’s really only hateful if you know someone is a faggot, but not if you only want to insult someone by saying they are like a faggot.
In the days following the incident, there was much feverish debate on Maplewood Online, the town’s unofficial community bulletin board. From Gate detractors, there were calls for heads to roll, while supporters expressed skepticism that anyone from the Meade family would stoop so low. Numerous posts, although they didn’t condone the violence, underscored the theory posited by Meade’s brother. “Guys call each other faggot,” one poster wrote. “It’s just something they say. It doesn’t mean you hate gay people.”
Perhaps. But, surely, rational people would agree that the only reason to use the F-word as an insult is because you believe it’s a bad thing to be gay. When Kobe Bryant got ticked off over a technical foul at a game in 2011, he didn’t call the ref an “effing astronaut” or a “friggin’ philanthropist.” He called him a “f—ing fag.” Because, in the height of his anger, that was the worst thing he could think of to call him. The lowest of the low.
I remember the first time somebody called me a dyke. I was in my 20s, living in the city, and I’d just refused the amorous attentions of a man on the street. He sneered as he said the word, spitting on the ground in front of me as he walked away. He didn’t actually know that I was gay, so according to the Meade brothers’ code, it wasn’t a bias incident. But I knew. And in that moment, every derogatory slur and homophobic quip I’d heard as a child, every moment of shame and pain I’d ever experienced growing up queer, shot to the surface. I heard his angry voice over and over in my mind after that, until finally, thankfully, it faded. My mother once asked me, not long after I came out to her, “But why do you have to march down Fifth Avenue, yelling and screaming with all that noise?” I don't remember what I said in response. Something snarky, no doubt. But if I'd been honest, I would have replied, "Mom, you have no idea how loud I have to shout, every day, to drown out the voices of shame instilled in me."
So although I don't know just who provoked whom at the bar that night, I do know this: if James Meade did, in fact, call the other man a faggot, it was terribly wrong. And if it had been me at the bar, that name would have hurt more than a punch in the face.
Words matter, people. They really do.
It’s actually quite frightening how ingrained the words “faggot” and “dyke” still are in our common vernacular, perhaps even more so today, thanks to the viral nature of social media. According to nohomophobes.com, a web site that tracks the use of homophobic language in the twittersphere, the word “faggot” was tweeted more than 346,327 times last week alone. I’m no math whiz, but that sure sounds like a lot.
There’s no telling how many young, insecure LGBT teens are witnessing those tweets each day, withering just a little more inside with every viewing. But we do know this: in the most recent survey of LGBT students by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, 84.9% reported hearing "gay" used in a negative way (e.g., "that's so gay") and 71.3% heard homophobic remarks (e.g., "dyke" or "faggot") frequently or often at school. More than eight in 10 said they had been verbally harassed themselves. These numbers are frighteningly high, particularly when you consider the suicide rates among LGBT teens. One 2011 study conducted by Columbia University psychology and researcher Mark Hatzenbuehler, for example, found that gay teens were five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts.
We need to talk about this. We need to talk openly—not only about the words faggot and dyke and queer, but the fear behind them, the feelings they inspire, their often unintended consequences. The more we talk, the more we’ll understand, and the closer we’ll be to a solution. That’s why North Jersey Pride was founded: to elevate that conversation and keep it going until we find solutions that work.
Our young-but-energetic nonprofit, which began as South Orange Maplewood Pride and hosted more than 300 people at a festival in Memorial Park last year, has expanded its reach and mission. We have two primary goals:
1) To raise awareness, foster understanding and generate support of LGBT individuals and families. Through our Pride Festival on June 9th, and other events, we aim to bring LGBT people together with our straight allies from all over the Garden State to celebrate diversity and inclusivity;
2) To channel all that energy into helping the incredible nonprofits and activist organizations around the state and the country that are fighting for the safety of our LGBT children, like GLSEN, theTrevor Project, and the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and organizations working tirelessly for marriage equality for all couples and families, like Garden State Equality, Human Rights Campaign, and theAmerican Civil Liberties Union. North Jersey Pride will be working with groups like these during Pride month and throughout the year to do whatever we can to aid their efforts, including donating portions of our event proceeds.
The North Jersey Pride Festival will take place on Sunday, June 9th in Maplewood Memorial Park and all are welcome. We are also planning a variety of activities during the week leading up to the festival, including an anti-bullying program, a transgender-themed movie night, a Pride 5K, and our first Equality Dance at the Maplewood Tennis Club. If you’d like to help, we welcome and appreciate your support in whatever form it comes—through sponsorship, volunteering on committee, or just showing up. We will dance, we will laugh, and we will shout loud and proud enough to drown out all the ignorance and hate that may yet exist.
Join North Jersey Pride in making this June the best Pride Month ever—and let’s shut that F-word down for good.