The organized chaos of Heathrow Airport’s terminal 5 rose and fell around me. Undulating waves of people – some scampering madly for flights, while others, hit by travel delays, wandered aimlessly in the neutral stupor of people neither here nor there.
It was Tuesday, June 14, 2016. Just off the brutally long flight from Las Vegas, I was killing time before my connection to Paris and wandered into a shop seeking a bottle of water and snacks. I turned a corner and came upon a wall of periodicals from around the world. From nearly every front page the tragedy screamed at me.
Orlando. All Orlando.
I’d been steeped in the news since first hearing it on Sunday. The news hadn’t made it into the paper I was reading but the trusty digital newsstand of Facebook delivered link after link of horror. The worst mass shooting in American history and the victims targeted could have been me.
I stood alone amidst this maelstrom of humanity at the papers. First the pain – grief for all those lives lost, the horror for the families, and then those who survived and whose lives are forever changed – washed over me again.
That grief gave way to something else. A familiar feeling that hits in the stomach and radiates like icy fire through the veins. It is known to anyone who is part of a group facing hatred and discrimination. It’s fear. The fear there are people in the world who, given the opportunity, would try to exterminate me merely because I am gay.
This past March, I participated in a panel discussion for International Women’s Day on the Las Vegas NPR affiliate. During the course of that interview, I mentioned I was a lesbian. It was a passing comment, tossed off-hand as a casual remark.
About 20 minutes after getting off the air I called the office to check messages and found a missed call in the queue. I rang back from my cell phone, neglecting to mask my number. No answer, so I left a voice mail. Moments later – a text arrived:
“Well hello yourself” :) Who is this and how may I help you?”
Then it began:
“This is a member of the community you insult by your existence, you f*cking dyke. You’re not welcome here. Get the f*ck out of Vegas.”
There were more. They got worse. A few days went by with no messages and then a few days later, another call. This one left a very long and detailed voice mail. I’ll refrain from sharing it but suffice to say, it wasn’t pleasant.
I contacted the police. I contacted the security firm that minds my business. I apprised my neighbors. Everyone assured me they had my back. I didn’t need to worry. Trolls like this arise and so long as you don’t feed them they go away. I told myself they were right. That everything was going to be fine. Surrounded by support, that icy fire in my veins and that chill in my stomach dissipated.
It’s isolating, this feeling. You know there are others who share the fear, but in the moment, it’s hard to get past it. Bigotry and hatred are powerful fuel and there are some who take words to action. Words may never hurt me, but sticks and stones sure can.
Seeing these newspaper headlines half way around the world my heart dropped and that feeling radiated again. My eyes welled up and began to spill down my cheeks. Juggling my water and snacks and attempting to wipe the hot tears, I drew the attention of one of the clerks in the shop passing by.
His first move was to grab the teetering bottle of water, and then he looked at me. He saw the tears, glanced down and saw my American passport. Having secured my wayward purchases he gave me a gentle smile and reminded me that even when distance separates me from all I know, I am never alone.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said. “What happened in your country … there are no words. Just know that we mourn with you.”
Cathy Brooks is the owner of Hydrant Club, a social spot for urban canines and their people in downtown Las Vegas.