Photo: Ant Rozetsky

Homophobia’s Hidden Carbon Count

OUR SUBARU sat on the grass plot in front of our house gathering pollen next to the certified “Backyard Wildlife Habitat” sign we’d posted to explain the condition of our yard. My spouse and I had let the beautiful, limited-edition, black car sit for months, until someone reported the vehicle as abandoned. None of its peeling bumper stickers explained my predicament: “woman seeks harmony with the rest of the natural world despite concerns of violence after being harassed on the bus.”

“Why spend money fixing up the car?” I argued. I had started walking and biking to work through the greenbelt to catch the light rail. “All we have to do is rent one for the weekend or use Zipcar.” I didn’t bring up the fears that broke our resolve seven years earlier when we had first committed to driving less. At that time, we took the bus, yet it wasn’t the gray emotional drudgery of sloshing through Seattle’s rain that pushed us to drive but the unnerving, isolating memories of being threatened by fellow passengers.

The night a drunken man stumbled onto the 36 bus, barely able to put his shirt on or climb the steps to board, was the first time that riding the bus became a threat to our survival. Holding his Bible, he glared at us from beneath his black leather cowboy hat, muttering about his gun and being a vet while spewing pejorative comments about homosexuals. “Now, now. Don’t harass the other passengers,” the female bus driver said, as though patting the head of a child, while doing nothing to stop the escalating verbal abuse. The bus driver failed to have him removed even though harassment violates Metro’s code of conduct. Trapped and panicked, we defended ourselves by calling the police from my cell phone and reporting the incident as it occurred. Terrified, we disembarked before our usual stop in order to escape, only to watch the driver reopen the doors after pulling away. The drunken man leaned out to spit in our direction. Neither the police nor the bus driver ever intervened. We were shattered.

The second time I was threatened, I was alone. “Here she is now,” a woman I’d never met sneered into her phone. She was talking about me over the phone to a man I had greeted with my traditional salutation of “peace” as I passed him on the way to the bus stop. In response, he had hurled insults at me, attacking gay people. Crossing the street to get away from him, I arrived to hear her hateful words pick up where his violent rhetoric had left off. Neither the cars speeding through the whirling gray grit of the street nor the silent funeral home behind me offered refuge, so I called my spouse, picked up a fist-sized rock, and prepared to defend myself.

For seven years, we protected ourselves by driving while wanting to protect our environment. Each of those seven years our carbon footprint increased by eight tons, contradicting all we were doing to reduce, reuse, and recycle. This is homophobia’s footprint — a social pollution that fouls the air and water quality for all. For cities to stop climate change, we need a carbon offset plan for homophobia’s emissions. We need to recognize that the “if you see something, say something” policy could protect air, water, and people too.

Jourdan Imani Keith is a playwright, naturalist, educator, and storyteller whose work blends the textures of political, personal and natural landscapes to offer voices from the margins of American lives. Keith has performed nationally and internationally, giving over 250 performances from Zimbabwe to Philadelphia, from Yellowstone and North Cascades National Park to Seattle.  Jourdan Keith has received awards from 4 Culture, Artist Trust, and Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs for Coyote Autumn and 2004 for the play and solo performance of The Uterine Files: Episode I, Voices Spitting Out Rainbows. She has received fellowships from Hedgebrook, Voices of Our Nations (VONA), and Jack Straw Writer’s program. Her poems, essays and articles have appeared in magazines, newspapers, radio, television and video, including The Seattle Times, Labyrinth, PUSH, Floating Bridge Press, Colors NW, Seattle Woman, and the anthology, Ma-Ka, Diasporic Juks, writings by Queers of African Descent. Jourdan Keith is Founder and Director of Urban Wilderness Project.


  1. I stopped driving a car several years ago myself and personal safety is always a concern on public transit or when walking at night.

    Have you considered concealed carry?

    Might be better than a rock if you simply can’t avoid or de-escalate a situation.

    Stay safe!

  2. When it says

    “Jourdan Imani Keith is the lead environmental and social justice advocate for its R U an Endangered Species”

    how many people are their on the campaign staff in total?

  3. What a predicament here I was thinking people were afraid of germs in public spaces and really its the verbal stouches of the mentally unhinged. If it makes you feel any better I was called Mustang Sally by a mentally unhinged person recently she yelled across the bus “Look at her hair”. Please don’t let it put you off riding the bus.

  4. JF
    Are you serious? Advocating packing a hidden gun as a way of resolving conflict? Sure, that has proven effective in soooo many cases???

  5. I keep doors and windows of my car locked, and the same for my house–in a “safe” neighborhood in the countryside. I used to live in an inner city area of high crime, drugs, shootings, where an old man was mugged as he waited for the bus. Be alert on all sides, ready to scream, pay attention to your intuition. And still be a person of good will to all.

  6. I’m sorry you had those hateful experiences. The public transportation system in my city is wretched, but it would be possible for me to ride the bus home from work. I tried this spring but had an incident where on one ride I was sexually harassed, repeatedly, by a drunk guy sitting next to me for the duration of the 15 minute ride. It was one of those situations where I didn’t want to confront him directly, tried to deal with him politely, and ended up ignoring him. It was really uncomfortable but I’m sure it’s an experience many women riding public transit have had – though I never went through that riding the El in Chicago. After my husband heard about it he didn’t want me riding the bus again, even though it inconveniences him because he has to drive to get me – we own one car. It’s definitely these kinds of experiences that make public transit feel like it’s not a “safe space.”

  7. I would suggest that the author plan her public transportation forays to peak-times. Peak times are when normal, decent working people are on board. It is true that the government is providing reduced-fares and Access cards to a lot of “nut cases” on medical marijuana. Even illegal immigrants have figured out how to obtain Access cards. Some riders also counterfeit Access cards.

    There are heroine addicts, and boozers on board. Essentially there are a lot of petty criminals, and the same people that use public sidewalks. In Los Angeles, 40% of the riders do not even pay to ride MTA buses and rail. These are scofflaws and deadbeats, that need to be arrested again. Homeless people might find that a bus ride is a good way to rest and escape from the cold or the heat. Most public transit experiences though, are mundane and monotonous. This little essay should not scare anyone. Public transit is definitely NOT a gay issue.

    Since the author is so panicked, she should go back to driving the Subaru. Should can brave the Alaskan Way Viaduct. One less car on the road won’t make a dent in the big picture. However, someone might sling a beer can at her Subaru—-Maybe a drunk (male or female)that does not like Japanese car—–Or a Seattle anarchist.

    The article was not well written. How would someone know that the author was a lesbian, unless she and her partner were being inappropriate in public (heterosexuals can be inappropriate, too). There is a wide world out there: Did the author mention pick pockets? I can not comprehend what homophobia has to do with public transit. Homophobia is the least of all the dangers in the public domain.

  8. To truly assess your level of danger from the people you mentioned on your two bus trips, read Gavin De Becker’s book, “The Gift of Fear”.


  9. When we visited San Francisco in March we opted to take a bus from Union Sq to Golden Gate Park. We spent a large portion of the ride, along with everyone else on the bus, being harangued by a proselytizer telling everyone to love one another, but that gays were evil. We are not a gay couple but, being from out of town and being a minority on the bus, we didn’t feel that we could counter this woman without creating a larger problem, so we put up with it. If someone on the bus were gay, they would have felt threatened. If it had been a man making these comments, they would have felt more threatened. It was an unpleasant ride but, more than that, comments that diminish one group of peoples only serve to diminish us all.

    We admire what you are trying to accomplish and offer our sincere wishes that you succeed. Seattle or SF or the world may not be ready for you, but your real courage is that you are willing to try and you are willing to talk about it.
    Thank you.

  10. Touching base with a few thoughts.

    The big picture is that for folks working to stop climate change by encouraging the use of public transit, they have to look at the multiple reasons folks stop using the bus.

    The campaign has had many volunteer staff who have done surveys of college students, adult riders and others to assess people’s transportation experiences. We found that men stopped riding the bus more because of threats of violence. We found that women avoid travel at night. We found most people just get a car as soon as possible.

    Other groups working around the country including DC are tallying harassment to create safer experiences. That is also our goal, so that MORE people choose public transit.

    Sharing this story is part of the strategy to increase awareness for environmental activists to build broader coalitions.

    I was motivated to take action when I found out how wide spread the experiences are. Statistically, most people who are harassed because they are believed to lesbian or gay are NOT gay or lesbian. Stereotypes impact all people.

    We ride the bus now (again). Ironically, if we get a car again, it will be so I can get out in nature.

    A young person in the Bay Area was violently attacked on the bus last year by another young person who admitted it was a hate crime. Two lives that will never be the same because of homophobia.

    My hope is that if people see something, they will have the courage to say something. I also hope that people will stop harassing people who suffer from mental illness. I think we can shift the culture of public transit, if we try. Rosa Parks, Dr. King and a lot of boycotts did.

    We can do it for the sake of the air and for the sake of the children.

  11. This is a very difficult story to hear, especially since I once drove for Seattle’s Metro Transit and have many stories to tell But I am struck by this: how quick we are to tell others what to do, how to solve their problems, how to fix things. How quick we are to challenge these same solutions. I wonder if it’s helpful. Maybe instead we could begin to listen to one another and ask the kinds
    of questions of each other that draw out the deepest of our wisdom, that begin to form an awakened community. Maybe instead of fix-its, we are asking to hear each others stories, to hear each other into speech, to find common ground, and allow the collaborative spirit to emerge from the conversation. There is power in that.

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