It was December 1997. I remember it vividly for a couple of reasons. My parents and I met my brother and my two nephews and niece at Simple Simon’s pizza in Independence. I was visiting from LA for Christmas and it was to be my one chance to see the kids. I had been close to them when they were smaller, but as they grew up, it seemed we had less in common. They were roughly 15, 13, and 11, I believe. The day before, my parents and I had gone to see Titanic. I innocently asked the kids if they had seen the movie. It was December 1997, and if you remember, it was the movie everyone was talking about.
“Leonardo DiCaprio is a fag,” my oldest nephew bellowed. “I hate that fag,” my other nephew agreed. And that was the beginning of a 15 minute conversation among my two nephews and niece about the sexuality of the most beloved, yet apparently, polarizing heartthrob of 1997. The boys talked about how they didn’t want to see the movie, because Leonardo was a faggot, a fag, gay. My niece bragged, “I don’t care if he is a fag, I still love him.”
I was actually 29 in 1997. I was newly out to my parents. My brother said nothing to them to stop them. He wouldn’t have. Just a few years before, back when I looked up to him and tried my best to build a relationship with him, his best friend would regularly call me Fag and Gay Ray to my face, in his presence, and he never asked this friend to stop. My parents also did nothing to stop the conversation. I watched both of them, clearly pained to hear their grandchildren say cruel things about a community of which their youngest son was a member, but they both stared down at their pizza, hoping the conversation would stop. Eventually, the three started talking about something else on their own.
I’m not sure why this day popped into my head today. But it’s something I’ve thought about from time to time in the years since it happened. I think about it whenever the movie comes on television. I thought about it when Eric and I went to the Titanic exhibit in Las Vegas last summer. I thought about it the only time I saw Leonardo DiCaprio in person. (He was with his girlfriend at the time, the insanely gorgeous Bar Refaeli. I thought to myself, he doesn’t look gay to me.) I also thought about it when one of my nephews passed away a couple years ago.
I am a forgiving person, I really am. I still love my nephews and niece, I only wish the best for their lives, but there was a shift after that day. They were kids, I don’t really know if they were li’l homophobes or just talking the way every other teenager talked, especially in Kansas in 1997.
On that day, I sat there hoping that someone would speak up. I hoped it would be my brother. I also hoped it would be my parents, who struggled so much with my sexuality, especially in those early years. If only one person had just said, “Stop, don’t use that word. There is no reason to ever call someone that word.” Of course, looking back, I know who that person should have been: it should have been me. I should have told my family, “I wish you would not use that word. I’m gay and words like fag and faggot hurt people’s feelings, specifically, my feelings.” And if I had, maybe it would have been the beginning of a conversation or an education or a connection.
By not saying anything, I backed away and I never gave these kids the chance to move forward. I do not know if they grew up to not like gay people, we’ve never talked about it.
I’m a lucky guy, I know that. I have friends who have been my friends so long that they are family now. And I’m lucky that those friends are actively, vocally, passionately supportive of me and my community. And I’m lucky that I have the relationship that I do with my parents. But when I think about that day, it does still haunt me. If I’d been brave enough to say something, who knows what I might have gained in the long run.