by Beau Burriola -
SGN European Correspondent
We were just going about our evening walk, the way we do most evenings after dinner, when we saw him approaching. I had a bad feeling in my gut before he was a hundred feet away, a feeling that he was determined to cause trouble, but in spite of him or anyone else, Julien and I continued down the Boulevard du Midi hand-in-hand.
Sure enough, right when we walked by, he and his family stopped and turned to us. His veiled wife didn't look directly at us, but the children did. Then, without provocation, the man spit at us with a look of utter disgust and mumbled something neither of us could understand. We kept walking, in the same way we always do these days.
It isn't easy to deal with every day. Both Julien and I have moved from our own countries to a third country altogether, just to be able to be together. Belgium is supposed to be the land of Gay marriage, so to have someone spit at us when we are walking or, worse, to stop and openly berate us for affection, is absolutely infuriating and nauseating. They have no idea what we've gone through to get here, to be legally married. As Gay men, we like to think of ourselves as inclusive and open to all ideas and people equally, but it is increasingly harder and harder to accept those people who refuse to accept us.
"Just because they come to this country doesn't mean they have to integrate," Julien grumpily tells me one evening while we walk back from the cinema to our home in the heart of Brussels. His view of Muslim migrants reminds me of some views about Latino migrants in the States. There's a feeling of xenophobia on both sides of the aisle, but what makes us fear Muslims is not their religion or culture, but their lack of respect and open hostility for our very right to exist as we are.
So, and perhaps inevitably, Julien and I have been reduced to carrying pepper spray on our walks. It's unfortunate, but after too many extremely difficult situations with groups (or mobs) of roaming Muslim men on our way home, we have been forced into a position of being prepared to defend ourselves. As peaceful men, we find this distasteful, but as human beings, we find this necessary. So, each of us carries two types of defensive sprays, and we are trained and ready to use them at the first sign of trouble.
"It shouldn't be this way," Julien complains in frustration after our latest confrontation with a screaming man on a bike. The man got off his bike and came up to us, face to face, saying something I could only understand every other word of, but which was vulgar enough for me to be immediately repulsed and angry. Hardened to these situations, we no longer show fear. We give them nothing. We are a stubborn minority of equality in a sea of volatile beliefs.
I wonder how people who know us so little can despise us so much. It seems too easy, too "us and them." I think about those protests in Iran and how all the competing protestors always yell "death to ____," where the blank is the enemy, and where death is an easy answer for anything you don't understand or feel comfortable with. Death to the dictator! Death to those who oppose the dictator! Death to women who wear makeup! Death to anyone but us!
All over Europe, the population of Muslims is quickly growing and providing a new challenge to Gay Belgians, who by all right of law should be as comfortable and free as our heterosexual counterparts. Instead, though, freedom is a "gray area," a sort of brittle protection that can be destroyed by any low-minded person bent on proving something to his friends or family.
It says something, then, that since moving from Seattle, and in all the cities I have visited in this world, that I most fear for my life in Brussels. It shows me that legal equality is not necessarily social equality, and that the battle continues even after "equality" has supposedly been achieved.
But with the same stubbornness and determination to claim our right to be who we are, Julien and I both insist on doing as we always do, in the face of and in spite of all the opposition we face on a nearly daily basis; even if it seems, sometimes, like we are the only ones with any gall left to show a little affection in public. In the crushing tide of Islamic conservatism, we remain hand-in-hand each day, perhaps foolishly. It's our right, and we didn't move halfway around the world to give it up.
Tonight we fell asleep angry and afraid again, but still unwilling to change. It's the only way we can respond, because given the choice to change our behavior or remain who we are, we understand that the capitulation of even just a single gesture of affection leads to a far more difficult future. It's our right, and it is worth fighting for.
"An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all."
- Oscar Wilde
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