That Time I was Called a Faggot

People were threatening to charge the customs booths, some fainting, some frantically calling their embassies, most visibly anxious. It looked like a mass town exodus from a catastrophe except the only thing we were all “escaping” from were our stressful lives back home — this was a vacation destination, not a herd of people fleeing from a volcanic eruption. In that experience of helplessness, I was being asked to exert the power to choose.

Harkening back to a time when we travelled by air, I think back to that day when 5 airplanes arrived at a small Mexican airport all at the same time. My wife calls that kind of log jam a fuckle; a f*ck load of traffic.

1000+ people crammed into an airport designed to process a few hundred. No cues for lines and 5 customs booths open. Do the time math on that. That was the looooooongest day I’ve ever spent at an airport. Did I mention it was hot? There’s not enough BTU’s to cool that many overheating and agitated tourists.

My wife and I committed early on in the experience to nurture a spirit of cooperation. That meant not charging ahead of anyone, not jockeying for position, allowing space, staying patient, and accepting things as they were. That also meant not siding with the “let’s charge the custom booth” mini fuckle that had erupted in one corner of the airport room. We did not want to be a source of volatility. And trust me when I tell you that things were volatile — 2020 US election volatile.

We knew we were pacing ourselves rightly — we consistently found ourselves behind the same travelling family. They also appeared to have taken the oath of “this too shall pass”. They became our reference point for patience and civility.

We were inching forward, halfway between the back of the room and the customs booth, when he appeared. He was looking for a Mexican stand off. The dude was agitated.

“Hey faggot”, he started.

When you hear those words reverberating behind you, you’re unlikely to personalize them unless you’ve been the victim of homophobic hatefulness. I was triggered by the cruelty of the words. Initially I didn’t think they were being directed at me, but they get your attention either way.

“Hey faggot”, he bellowed again. He was about 3 messy rows back from me (there’s actually no rows in a mosh pit of people) — he was a young guy, brawny, travelling with his girlfriend. I turned around. He was glaring in my direction.

“Are you talking to me”, I asked. Now don’t imagine I was using my Deniro Taxi Driver “You talkin’ to me” voice. It was more like a “I can’t imagine why you would be talking to me” curious voice.

“Ya”, he replied. Once we had reached the understanding that I was the faggot, he started ripping into me. A profanity laced rant that would make Richard Pryor blush.

The accusation: We had cut ahead of the line. In a situation where the only thing of value was time and space, there is no greater charge — like being accused of eating all the food reserves when shipwrecked on an island.

I tried to explain to him calmly that we had not cut ahead of anyone. Given that there were no real lines, I referenced the family in front of us to support my claim that we were proceeding steady like Eddy and maintaining a respectful and co-operative pace. He wasn’t interested. The dude was hot under the tank top. Worse, the family in front of us buttoned up — not a peep. They had no interest in getting embroiled in what they assumed was going to devolve into a major conflict that would come to blows. The people around us were scared. My wife was scared. I was scared.

A brief backgrounder on me and conflict. I don’t fight. I subscribe to the Gandhi school of how to get along with others and would never get physical unless it meant having to defend myself or someone I love. I try to love the people around me, which makes the decision not to fight with anyone much simpler.

What do you do in a situation that tense, everyone feeling powerless, and someone deflecting their anger at you and itching for a physical altercation?

Your first instinct would be to defend your honor and stake your claim thoughtfully.

What happens when that doesn’t work? What happens when reason doesn’t prevail and the person on the other side keeps coming at you, their anger peaking?

Instinct 2 might be to dig in: “You want to go, okay, let’s go.” Here’s the problem with that: You’re not going anywhere good. There’s only one outcome when fighting fire with fire — you’re going to burn the whole place down. That wasn’t the right choice for me, for my wife, or the hundreds of people around me. Jail in a foreign country didn’t sound right either.

I knew what he wanted. He wanted out. I was his figurative “out”, but he literally just wanted out of the airport. We all did. So, I gave him what he wanted. I let him out by letting him move in front of me in the cue/not a cue. I could not change his mind, so I moved around it. In a crowd of too many, two people were not going to make one iota of a difference in anyone’s airport experience from hell. To ensure everyone’s safety, I decided that was a price worth paying.

The people around me were deeply appreciative — even thanking me. They seemed to find solace in my ability to stay calm, contrasting our collective frustration at the whole mess we found ourselves in. Something finally found a resolution in an otherwise helpless-making experience.

A learned a lot from that experience with tank top guy.

Some takeaways for how to survive being called a faggot or anytime you feel backed into a corner:

1. You are not the target

In situations of conflict, your primal instinct is self preservation. Self preservation is saddled with personalization. You make yourself the center of the experience. You need something to defend. Don’t do it. Tank top guy’s anger at the situation was no more about me then a panedmic is about you. You are simply experiencing something that is happening, period. When you make it about you, you allow yourself to become wrapped up in someone else’s emotional narrative. It also means that you can’t actually hear or see what is going on.

In those situations, your goal is diffusion not activation. Take the ‘tat’ out of the other persons ‘tit’ and create space for them to feel what they are feeling. When you don’t allow yourself to become a target, the anger doesn’t stick. That starts the diffusion process.

2. Keep your eye on the prize, not the pride

In a moment of conflict, there is an outcome that each party is after. Conflict arises when you assume that the other side is misaligned with your goals. If I had stayed anchored in the idea that the goal of that altercation was being right, then I would have set myself permanently at odds with him. That would have meant escalation. His goal was getting out of the airport. So was mine. I was also preoccupied with safeguarding the safety of my wife and the people around me. When I realized that we had a shared goal, I created a focal point to channel his anger by staying fluid and open. On the surface it looks like acquiescing on my part, but that is the nature of every decision — what are you giving up so you can have what you truly want? I went on holiday to unwind not to be caught up in a melee. That was my first opportunity to detox. Keep your eye on the prize, not the pride.

3. Use tension to activate flexibility

Tension is a kind of static — very opaque and rigid. When tank top guy became tense, I could have shut down and allowed the noise to consume me. His tension overwhelming me. That would have sent me down a fight or flight runway. What the moment called for was calm and creative problem solving. Embracing tension means moving through confusion by finding the path of least resistance. If your goal is to flow down stream, you can either keep butting up against the same stone, or simply float around it. Being pliable means knowing that you are never entirely powerless in any given situation. There is always a choice to be made. Staying rooted in that feeling of agency keeps you open to a creative and fluid process.

4. Prepare for the worst

I’m not advocating hyper vigilance. I’m promoting preparedness. The moment when things get heated is not the time to start practicing being a cool cucumber. You got to sow your garden long before that. Cultivating a disposition of calm long before exposure to tension sets the stage for how you will adapt when things go Defcon 1. If you want to rise to the occasion of embracing conflict you need to nurture flexibility long before you run into those high alert situations. That means learning to become more aware of your minds tendency to react when things feel threatening, and then nurturing a counterpoint to primal tendencies. Hone the skill of attention and tolerance through the practice of deep awareness of your thoughts and feelings. Most of us have a bucket full of inner tension to practice with safely on our own. If you can reconcile the tension of your inner world with gradual practice, even the suddenness of an outward experience of tension won’t knock you on your ass. You’ll always have a calm place to abide in.

Mark Stolow is the CEO of Huddol — Inspiring human growth and transformation