Text and Photographs by Eve Diana
"Mommy, why did they throw tear gas at us?"
These are my three-year-old son's words to me after our family was attacked this weekend while marching in San Diego's Gay and Lesbian Pride March.
We had begun the annual festivity with a group of 70 children, parents and grandparents. Our contingency, Family Matters, had been named this year's Outstanding Community Organization. We planned to follow the march route through downtown San Diego and spend the rest of the day at the Pride Festival in Balboa Park.
My family proudly wore matching shirts festooned with custom made rainbow signs: mine read "Queer by Nature" (because I truly believe I am and always have been), John (my best friend and partner, who is heterosexual) wore "Queer by Association" and our son Julian wore "Queer by Heritage." This was our day to celebrate our community and our pride in who we are. Gay Pride is our carnival, our old-home week, our family reunion.
A few minutes into the march, the unthinkable happened: someone threw a tear gas canister that landed and exploded just beside the families.
I saw the column of smoke and people racing away. I heard the screams. But my mind couldn't register what was happening until I tried to draw a breath and felt my throat on fire. John raced down the street with Julian's stroller, and I followed as best I could. Having recently recovered from pneumonia, my lungs were already in a weakened condition -- I couldn't keep up. John kept turning to look for me; I kept waving him on. "Run! Get Julian out of here!" I kept stopping to cough and try to breathe, a futile effort. Two strangers grabbed my arms and pulled me along with them, retching and choking.
Finally, I met up with them blocks away. Julian was screaming in pain and terror. John didn't want to stop to pick him up and tried to comfort him with words as we ran. "You're okay, baby. Mommy and Daddy are right here. You'll be fine sweetheart." I grabbed John's arm and we continued our escape as fast as we could manage.
When we finally felt safely out of range of the smoke, John got him out of the stroller, and I poured the contents of my water bottle onto a tissue and we wiped his face and eyes. He drank some juice and finally calmed. John was also okay once he washed his own face and eyes. I was still gasping. Snot and spit streamed from my nose and mouth. My tears burned my face when they made contact with my skin.
I wanted to go home. John insisted, "It's important for us to go back and finish the march." He was right. More than ever, our visibility was vital, particularly in the face of the terrorist who wanted us all to disappear.
So we marched to the bitter end: Julian clinging to John's neck, the two of us pushing the empty stroller, our tattered signs peeling off our bodies, me alternately sobbing and coughing, trying to acknowledge the cheers of the crowds who encouraged us every step of the way. There was no triumphant celebration for us when we reached the end at Balboa Park. John pushed Julian on the swings while I sat on the grass choking and spitting.
We went home, put our son to bed and watched the news. The hate crime received only a brief mention. None of the coverage noted that the attacker had targeted babies, young children, and pregnant women, sending four of them to the hospital. John went out to buy Captain Crunch cereal for me. As a comfort food, it was a bad choice -- I discovered my mouth bled when I ate it.
Sunday we returned to the Pride Festival, mostly hoping to connect with other "survivors". Because the group we were marching with had scattered, I needed to know how everyone was. And to talk about it. It was a beginning.
Two days later, I'm still coughing and the burns on my face are peeling. My son has asked me repeatedly, "Why did they throw tear gas at us?"
How do I explain hatred to my son when I don't understand it myself? The only answer I could give him was that some people do very mean things. I compared it to the bullies he's encountered at school. I did not tell him that this is what happens when bullies grow up and can buy deadly weapons. We will continue to encourage him to talk about it, even if I can't give him an answer that makes it all better.
What I can't shake is a deep feeling of sadness that my family's safety shield has been pierced. Everyone's got one -- the mental protection that lets you operate day to day in spite of the frightening and violent world around us. But after Saturday's in-your-face incident, and someone scrawling "FAG" on our car last week, I feel as though my shield has been ripped away, and all I want to do is hide. I've had flashbacks repeatedly since the incident, and find myself crying at my computer as my throat burns at the memory.
The attacker has not been found. The reward offered for information leading to his arrest grows. A longtime activist, I now feel leaden and paralyzed. I couldn't protect my son from this horror, and next time it might be worse. We all paid a price for choosing to be visible as a queer family. My son, who has yet to touch a toy weapon or view a violent television program, now knows what a hate crime is.
I'm trying to react as a responsible parent. Be an adult, Eve. Don't wallow. Turn this, somehow, into something useful. Bring the issue to my son's school as an object lesson: that intolerance is the true evil, not other people. Teach the children NOW how to deal with anger in healthy ways. Teach them not to fear and hate people who are different from themselves. Teach them that queer families are just that: families, loving and imperfect and overextended and boring and just like every other color and breed of family out there.
But more than that, I want my son to go to sleep at night still believing that his parents can keep him safe. I want to approach my car with its purple Tinky-Winky doll on the dashboard and its rainbow bumper stickers without a sick sense of apprehension about what graffiti I might find on it. I want my mouth to heal so I can eat Captain Crunch again. I want to give my son back his peace of mind.
I want mine back, too.
Eve Diana describes herself as a passionate mom- writer-dreamer-queer-nerdgeek-activist. She earns a paycheck by making order out of chaos, is a mom for love, and writes to maintain her peace of mind. She can be reached at .
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