On the surface, an offensive and derogatory phrase pertaining to homosexuals. In the early-90's, however, the trend was for minorities to reclaim negative slang against them and make common usage out of the insults, thus stripping them of their offensive capabilities. Thus: black men calling each other "nig(ger)" and gay columnist Dan Savage opening his Savage Love sex advice column with the phrase, "Hey, Faggot!"

El Paso, Texas, around 1983. I had recently come out of the closet, and every weekend I would drive my little Mazda pickup truck down to that southwestern metropolis to go to the gay bars.

It was one hundred and twenty miles away from my hometown, but it was the closest place to my home that had such establishments. Plus, at that time, the legal drinking age in Texas was nineteen, whereas in New Mexico, it was twenty one. At eighteen, I could definitely pass, and never got carded when visiting The Old Plantation or The San Antonio Mining Company, El Paso's two most popular gay bars.

The two bars were relatively close to one another, although it was somewhat risky to walk from one to the other. The area was an industrial one, and could definitely be considered on the wrong side of the tracks. In fact, you had to walk over old railroad tracks before going into the Mining Co. Several gay bashings had been reported in recent months, but everyone always traveled in groups of at least three, so we felt safe.

That feeling of safety was shattered when I, my friend Bart, his lover Bobby, and our friend Sam were making our usual drunken stumble from the Mining Co (a dive bar) to the Plantation (a dance club).

The alleyway was dark, and the sounds of our footsteps echoed quite a bit, so it was to our great surprise that we found ourselves confronted by several beefy rednecks who announced themselves by chucking a couple of beer bottles at us, shouting, "Hey, faggots!".

Time slowed to a crawl. Instinctively, Bart and I moved to the front of the group, I because I'm pretty beefy myself, Bart because he was a veritable god of chiseled muscle. Bobby was small; Sam was tall and willowy. Bart and I figured we'd be better at bearing the brunt of what we were afraid was coming than the other two boys.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sam fiddling with his handbag, a small glittery thing, which didn't seem to serve much purpose other than to hold a pack of cigarettes, the odd joint or other recreational drug, and whatever lip gloss Sam had decided to wear that evening. I couldn't possibly fathom what Sam was doing with that handbag at that particular moment.

Then I heard a gunshot.

From behind me.

It was impossibly loud. I had never heard a gun fired at such close range other than the .22's I'd fired at summer camp, and the sound was huge and amplified in that dusty Texas alleyway. My ears seemed to close themselves against the sound, as if to deny it and the violence it could represent in a situation already fraught with the most fearsome danger a young queer could face.

Incredulous, and somewhat against my will (I didn't want to take my eyes off our potential assailants) I turned my head slightly, and there stood Sam. Holding a rather large pistol. And smiling at the good ol' boys confronting us.

In his soft Texas drawl, Sam spoke, without a quiver in his voice, or hint of nervousness in his stance:

"Don't y'all boys mean to say, 'Hey, armed faggots?'"

Across the alley, four pairs of hands immediately shot into the air. Sam made a little twitching movement with his pistol, telling them to just get the fuck out of our sight. Our cowed assailants broke and ran.

The entire incident couldn't have taken more than a minute, but my entire perception of Sam swung from funny queen to hero in that small frame of time.

Had the incident happened today, it probably would have been far more earth-shattering, but in our youth we just laughed it off, and headed to the Plantation almost as if nothing had happened.

Oh, and by the way ... Sam never had to pay for a drink again.

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