Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ally to Activist

A few weeks ago I had an experience I’ve not quite been able to digest fully until now; I helped prevent a man from killing himself.

I was standing on the platform of the Belmont CTA station at the tail of Pride weekend.  Stevie Ray Vaughan was in my ears and I had just buried my nose into a game of Words With Friends when something strange registered out of the corner of my eye.  I looked up to see a man standing so close to the edge of the platform that only his heels were on the concrete; the rest were dangling off.

At first I took him for drunk and stupid.  It was about 2:30 in the morning, and the streets were filled with hundreds of people staggering their ways from one locale to the next.  I took off my headphones and put my phone into my pocket so I could be prepared to catch this man if he started to fall.  Then I noticed a wallet and cell phone on the ground beside him, and it occurred to me I had seen him drop those while the brunt of my attention was checking the latest Facebook updates a moment before.

I approached the man, placed my hand on his chest, and asked him, “Why don’t you take a step back?”  Finally I started to take in what this man looked like.  He was my height, which is a rare thing for me to run across.  Short blond hair, a piercing in the side of his nose, and huge holes in his earlobes that could only have held some huge gauge earrings; big enough to get your finger through.  I noticed a trace of silver glitter by his right eye.  And his eyes were dead.  Cold.  I’d suppose he was, at that moment, virtually incapable of seeing what was in front of him. 

I had to ask him to step back a few times before he did, but it was a grudging step that left him inches from the edge.  He kept pointing ahead of him, I thought to the other platform.  Then I realized he was actually pointing at the rails.  I kept asking, never removing my hand, and finally he stepped back to a safe distance. 

At that moment a woman on his other side, who had been trying to figure out what she should do, also came up to him and tried to hand him back his things.  “Take these,” she kept saying.  He regarded them for an instant and only answered, “Give them to my mom.”

She kept insisting he take back his belongings, and finally emotion crawled into his eyes.  It was a deep, crushing pain.  He turned to her and demanded to know why he should take his things back.  “My mom doesn’t even know me,” he said with a deep anguish.  “Do you even know my name?” he asked accusingly of the woman.  She shook her head.  “Do you know my name?” he asked of me.  Suddenly I became aware I was holding his wallet and phone.  “I only just met you,” I told him.

At that point the fight went out of him and he collapsed to the ground against the barricade beside the escalator.  The woman tried to engage him in conversation, and I made sure she felt confident to stay there with him while I told her I was going to try and find an officer.

Back on the ground level I caught the attention of the CTA worker sitting in the kiosk.  When I told him there was a man trying to fall onto the tracks, he leapt into action.  I led him back to the man, who at this point was standing and looked like he was trying to find his way downstairs.  I tried to hand him back his wallet and phone, but he wouldn’t take them.  Finally I stuffed them into the front pocket of his shorts.

The CTA worker took over from there.  He engaged the man like he was professionally trained to handle a suicide attempt.  Told the man his name, asked for his (I didn’t catch either).  Led him downstairs.  On the way down I heard the would-be jumper confront the worker, “Did you come out to your mom today?  Tell her she was never gonna have grandkids?”  The words stabbed me in the heart, and all I could think was how much worse it was for him.

I decided that was about all I could handle.  It had been a long day, he seemed to be in safe hands, and my train home was finally pulling into the station.  I got on.

Immediately I felt selfish for leaving.  All I did was stop him from immediate danger.  I didn’t convince him to live, I simply stopped him from dying.  Once.  I realized I had no way of knowing where he went, what he did, or what he wanted to do.  All I know of him is that he had been rejected by his mother in the most fundamental way, and that his despair was so great he believed he had no one else in the world to turn to for help.

As a straight man I have always felt out of place when it came to advocating equal rights for gay people.  I’ve never been disenfranchised, mocked, or harassed for my sexuality.  Thus I never felt I had the power or passion fed by those experiences to do justice for the fight.  I’d stop harassment when I came across it, but that was about it.  I suppose I felt I had no place.

But that’s where the “A” in “LGBTQA” comes from – Allies.  That speaks to me there is an acceptance, an understanding that includes all people.  My presence is welcome.  This isn’t a gay issue; hell, just look at that acronym.  It keeps getting longer because human sexuality is such a complex creature.  There keeps being a new way to identify, a more specific way describe one’s identity. (Note - since originally writing this three years ago, I've come to learn that the A more commonly stands for Asexual. I'm still proud to be an ally, however).

This is a human issue.  It affects us all.  It’s not about gay rights, or gay marriage.  It's about rights.  It’s about marriage.  Wherever you stand, however you identify, this is about you as much as it is about anyone and everyone else.  Before we are sexual beings, we are human beings.  I consider myself a person before I consider myself a straight person.  I consider you as a person before I consider your sexuality, your ethnicity, your career, your hobbies, your country of origin, your politics, your favorite movies, your sense of humor…  I firmly believe we should all belong in this frame of mind if we are to continue to progress as a species.

Step one is education.  Educate yourself.  Make material available to others.  No one is a freak, no one is a weirdo.  We’re all just people, and we all have the right to live the way we choose as long as we do not infringe upon the rights of others.

Equally important is to find your own circle of support.  I keep thinking of that poor man on the platform whose name I wish I knew.  In the deepest despair, unable to accept himself because he had placed his entire self-worth upon the opinion of just one person.  That’s too much responsibility to give to anyone, and too many things can go wrong too easily.

Finally, I’ll repeat here the thought I shared in the minutes after my encounter with this man: Be proud of who you are. Be respectful of who you're not. A man like this shouldn't want to die simply because you can't accept the way he lives his life.

Now get out there and do some good.