I’ve never been into physical activity. I’ve addressed some of this before but I’ve just never felt comfortable in my own skin and that has always translated into a lack of desire for doing anything in which my body had to perform. So, as a result, I never really tried to change things. I’ve always just been adequate enough to get by and it worked for me. However, I made new friends my sophomore year of college that helped me try to get a workout group going. I’ve always just been too anxious to head to the campus gym by myself because I would have no idea what to do. I took one gym class in 8th grade so I really didn’t have a clue. Having someone else to go with me and make the process easier was a godsend. We would always start off with cardio and I hated it. Absolute hatred. I didn’t like how I felt when my legs would burn to keep me at anything above a fast walk for any length of time. I hated how by the end I was more wheezing than breathing. I hated how I looked with sweat dripping down my forehead into my eyes. But it was part of my betterment plan so I took in tow.
This was abnormal for me in many ways. I tend to give up on things very often, usually myself primarily. So the fact that I kept up with this plan was new for me and I liked how I felt like I always had the energy to spare. Jump forward a year and I had new workout partners, ones that required goals to be set for themselves, so I followed suit and hoped for the best. Now at Northwestern, we have a large indoor track so that even when walking outside makes you regret ever moving to the Chicago area, you are able to run in relative warmth. For some reason, we decided that we would start trying to improve our mile run times. Now, this was something that I absolutely resented.
Four years of running the mile for the Presidents fitness test in high school had always left me with a distaste for such activities. I generally tried to convince people to walk with me and we would make do with our 20 minute mile times while everyone around us would brag about their 6-minute miles. Now I was going to have to try to do something similar and I hated the notion. Our first go at it my friend had a sub seven-minute mile while I was barely coming in at nine and a half minutes. That winter I went to the gym every day with or without friends and ran that mile. I pushed myself continuously and in that three month quarter, I got my mile time down to 7:35, a feat that I had never thought possible. I know that it isn’t even that impressive of a time but for the perpetually overweight me, it was everything. I remember like semi passing out on the cooldown lap that followed because like I was barely able to breathe but in a good way. (Ha!) From then on running wasn’t really a punishment anymore. I was never able to get any faster but I maintained that pace for a bit and eventually spent more time trying to just run better and not necessarily faster. I spent the remainder of college running more and less depending on my mood and energy level. After graduation, it was all a little different.
In Houston, I didn’t have a gym membership anymore. I had no climate controlled track to run on. Without a job, I rarely left my house and pretty much gained back all the weight I had lost in college-seemingly overnight. Tired of the nagging comments of family members I decided it was time to try to get back into running to try to stave off as many pounds as possible. There is an elementary school at the end of my street and the sidewalk surrounding it is a little over a half mile, so two laps around would be my new gage for the mile and I would go for a jog a little before noon every day. This started around the end of January and for a while I was doing a decent job of keeping to this schedule, only taking breaks on the weekend. Mid-February on a day very much like today as I type this, bright blue skies, sun shining, bringing the temperature into the upper sixties making it a perfect day in Houston. I was out on my run finishing up the second lap of my mile when something happened to make me regret putting on my gym shoes that morning.
For context, I can’t run without music. Like it is beyond painful to run silently, so to make the experience more enjoyable I generally am blasting music to keep my feet moving. As I run I sing too. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine that when I know no one is around I can sing obnoxiously loud knowing very well that I won’t be heard. But with my headphones in I generally, can’t hear others. Now here I was about half a mile into my run, very much lost in the music when I think I hear someone yelling at me. So not knowing what to expect I take out my headphones and look to the street and I see this car driving alongside me. In it were four high school age boys yelling, “Run Faggot! Yeah, you better run away!” I want to say I put on my brave face and yelled back a witty response, but honestly I was too frightened to speak. The first thought that went through my head was wondering how they knew.
I looked down and made sure that my running attire was appropriate, black gym shorts and purple Northwestern basketball shirt and ankle socks and black tennis shoes. Nothing too feminine, nothing screaming gay, but they knew and they were following me and I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t run home because then they could follow me and who knows what a bunch of idiots would do with that information. No. So I chose the easy way and ran through the school parking lot up to the front doors and just sat on the bench and watched as their car drove away. This all occurred within a matter of a few minutes but the memory has haunted me ever since. It could have been way worse. I could have actually been jumped, had items thrown at me, or any other manner of violence, but I got away with just some hurtful words and a bruised ego. Some aren’t so lucky. I never thought something like this would happen to me. I live in Houston, the fourth largest city in the country. You would think that then 2015, in a large progressive city with an openly gay mayor that this incident would never have occurred. It sure took me by surprise.
When I got home I remember feeling far more exhausted than any mile run would ever leave me. I remember just leaning against my locked door crying. I remember the shame I felt as my tears led to quiet heaving in my chest like I had just went a few rounds in the ring. It made me think that elementary school phrases like, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” are such lies. Sometimes words do hurt. I only ever told one person about it and months after the fact because I just didn’t know how to express what happened. I still don’t think it makes sense really. I just stopped running. I don’t even think it was because I was afraid it would happen again, but even thinking about that day makes my chest hurt. I double over and get this ball of ice in the pit of my stomach and my body tenses and I just know that I can’t run there again. The most frustrating part of the whole experience is that it was just a bunch of high school punks yelling a word and it made me feel so weak.
Meriam Webster has only one definition of the word faggot: a derogatory term for the male homosexual. The origin of the word is the Anglo-French fagot which is a bundle of sticks. I honestly never knew that there were two different spellings; all I knew was that one was harmless and the other struck me like a knife in the chest. It’s funny how certain confrontations can impact you. I always thought that a word has no power over you unless you give it. But sometimes circumstances don’t lie in your favor. In that moment though I was undoubtedly bigger and taller than those boys, they were in the position of power. I thought I was fine with my identity. I am proud to be gay, but in that moment I wasn’t. I felt vulnerable and weak and confused and scared all at once. It was the worst parts of riding a rollercoaster mixed with the apprehension of repelling backwards off of a cliff and a punch to the solar plexus all at once. When I went out on that run I had one purpose and that was to do a thing that I had grown to enjoy in the sake of becoming a healthier person, trimming some fat along the way. Instead I was met with hate and as a result have become averse to an activity out of fear. The feeling is so irrational and yet it remains.
You may be thinking where is this all coming from? Here I am a few days before Valentine’s Day and instead of a post on love or relationships here I am burdening everyone with a tale of hate. I get it. I’m sorry. I really don’t intend to make these posts all downers but sometimes you just need a release. This wasn’t an experience I was planning on writing down, but a few weeks ago I watched the music video for a song that I really like called, “Calling Me” by Aquilo and I was suddenly back on that sidewalk. It is such a beautiful video and when I watched it I felt stronger. I know it is such a cliché but music is very important in my life. Songs can make me smile and laugh or lay down and cry with just a few notes. This song gave me strength and inspiration. I hope you’ll watch it and let me know how it made you feel.
Valentine’s Day is this weekend and I’ll be spending it alone like I have for the last 23 years but this Sunday I won’t be sad. This year I’m learning to love myself, flaws and all. I mean I have to live with myself for the rest of my life I might as well find a way to make that time enjoyable. And maybe that’s just a faggot thing to say but I can’t change who I am. What I can change is how I let others opinions of that affect me. In the wise words of Rafiki, “Oh yes, the past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.”