In a moving, and funny piece, writer and performer Menno Kuijper, who you can see on stage at the RVT on Friday August 17, writes about standing up to the man who called him “batty boy” on far too regular a basis …
When I moved to Brixton 11 years ago it immediately struck me as a very friendly place, but this was mostly due to my lack of English. “They’re so nice there”, I said to a friend, “They have this local greeting, you hear it all the time when you come out of the station.” My friend quickly informed me that ‘skunk’ did not mean ‘hello’, which also explained why some guys kept following me every time I said ‘skunk’ back. And there was me thinking it was my irresistible charms…
Another word I soon started hearing, but with decidedly less friendliness, was ‘battyman’. I once heard a black guy saying it under his breath as I walked past him. Another time, as I walked past a car at the traffic lights, the driver looked at me and said “Battyboy!” through the open window. I looked at him, a bit startled. He was black as well. “You’re a battyboy,” he said, and laughed as he drove off. A Jamaican friend filled me in on what they’d been calling me. Although admittedly I’ve always been one of the ‘obvious’ ones, I still wondered how they knew. I hadn’t been wearing my fake snakeskin high-heeled boots (those days were far behind me), I didn’t think I had particularly ‘gay hair’, and they hadn’t even heard me speak (which is a dead give away). But that’s beside the point – none of these things give someone carte blanche to hurl abuse at someone.
One man in particular would call me a battyman every time he saw me. And that was often, for we live on the same street. It was like going into a shop where a buzzer goes ‘beep’ as soon as you walk through the door, or those moving walkways at airports where a voice says “mind your step” as you reach the end: he’d see me and go “battyboy”. It became so frequent that I started taking notes whenever it happened.
I never really quite knew how to respond to it. I always wished I could do something that would scare the living daylights out of him, unleash some kind of monstrous strength or fantastic superpower, or at least find something clever to say. “Yes, I’m gay, well-spotted, you’ve just won a fridge!” / “Thanks for letting me know, I never realised” / “Can you say that a couple more times? I think it’s turning me straight” / “More girls for you!” / “Will you stop flirting with me?” But I guess trying to outwit stupidity is like asking the pope to condone condoms. And so I’d just ignore it and walk on, but inside me an anger and aggression would well up that had me both scared and pleasantly surprised; but it always felt like unfinished business. Maybe I should just scratch his car with my keys, or leave a piece of paper under his windscreen wiper saying “faggot” or something. Stupidity can be quite contagious.
One day, I was on my way home and I could see him standing on the pavement. He was talking to a friend on the other side of the street, and he just stared as me. As I walked in between them, he said to his friend: “That’s a battyboy”. I just groaned and walked on, until I saw a police car at the end of the street. I put my hand up so they stopped, and asked if they could have a word with the guy as he was giving me homophobic abuse. “Would you like to come with us?” they asked. My heart was pounding in my chest, so I declined and went home, glad I’d done at least ‘something’. A couple of weeks after he was washing his car, I really didn’t want him to call me a battyboy again and was about to take another route to the park, but then I thought: “No! I have every right to walk down this street without getting abuse from him, I ain’t gonna change my f-ing way!” As soon as he spotted me, he stopped washing his car and just stared, so I stopped and stared right back. He put his sponge down and came right up to me. “Don’t you ever do that again, setting the police on me!” he said aggressively. “Don’t give me a reason”, I replied, mustering as much inner butchness as I could (my name in Dutch means ‘butch’ or ‘tough’ after all). He gave me a long stare, then turned around and went back to washing his car. I memorised the registration plate, and headed for the park. Just before I turned around the corner, there it was again, albeit slightly delayed: “Battyboy”.
When I got back home, I phoned the police. I didn’t mean to report him; I just wanted to ask for advice on how to deal with a situation like this. The next day two police officers came round and I was giving them my best laddish impression because I didn’t want them to think I’d somehow been ‘asking for it’. It was only after they had left and I complimented myself on a job well done that I realised I’d been sitting in the armchair with the animal print throw …
The next day a special detective phoned up and invited me to the police station to make an official statement, which I did. “We take homophobic and racial abuse very serious” she said, “And have something called ‘positive action’ – we can arrest someone straight away if we think there is reason enough”. All my notes had shown there was a history of abuse, and I’d given them his car registration number. Two days later they arrested him, put him in a cell, and phoned me up. He had denied everything, and as there were no independent witnesses, they couldn’t take it any further and had to let him go after a few hours. But they did give him a harassment order: he is not allowed to communicate with me, directly or indirectly. If that does happen, I just phone the police and they’ll arrest him again straight away. I was a bit scared he may have friends who’d come after me or he’d do something himself, but at the same time I was really glad they’d arrested him. I’ve seen him since, but he doesn’t stare at me anymore, and there’s a wonderful silence when I walk past.
I’ve often tried to understand the name-calling, and homophobia in general, why guys feel a need to have to say something nasty, if it makes them feel better or superior, why some black guys don’t see calling someone a battyman as being similar to someone hurling the ‘N’ word at them. It’s like trying to figure out why my dad once said he’d rather my sister was a lesbian than me being gay. Or why the word gay has come to mean ‘crap’. Is it simply because of the deep-seated belief that being gay is still seen as the most emasculating and therefore degrading thing you can be? Or is it similar to me cringing when I see a ‘flaming queen strutting down Old Compton Street as if she’s in a Beyonce video’? Or that I’d love to pin those girls on Big Fat Gypsy Wedding down and attack them with an arsenal of baby wipes and make-up remover? Who knows, but rather than getting all philosophical about it, we should just be practical: record events, and report them.
Obviously, this story isn’t anything compared to guys who’ve been beaten up, or worse, killed for being gay, and it’s worrying to hear stories about homophobic attacks being on the rise – even in places like Amsterdam. I don’t know if you can ever truly change someone’s homophobic attitudes, or how to stop these from perpetuating. But if I could pick a superpower, it would be the ability to eradicate homophobia with the butchest sparkling laser beam of rainbow goodness that would make any Big Fat Gypsy Wedding look positively understated. Until then, look after yourself, and if you do find the perfect comeback to being called ‘battyman’ or ‘battyboy’, let me know.