By John Lynds
In light of the Orlando terrorist attack that targeted members of Florida’s gay community and left 49 innocent victims dead, East Boston’s Todd Antonellis’s speech about his struggles as a gay man in Boston seems more significant and poignant in lieu of the events in Florida last weekend.
Antonellis was this year’s keynote speaker at Eastie’s annual Gay Pride Flag Raising ceremony last Thursday at Piers Park. It was a speech filled with discrimination, sorrow, encouragement, pride and triumph in the face of ruthless bigotry.
“I’m going to share a short story from my youth,” said Antonellis. ” I’m about seven years old and some big kids call me over from the across the play field and they ask me, “If you were on a bus full of homos, would you stay on or get off?”. This was a tough question for me to answer, I’d only ridden a bus a few times with my grandmother and she always told me when it was our stop, plus, what’s a homo, why is the bus full of them and what am I doing on the bus.”
Antonellis said the big kids are standing there, waiting with wicked grins on their faces.
“I figure a bus full of anything sounds kind of bad, so I choose to get off and they laugh, then they pointed and called me a homo,” he said.
Antonellis said over time the meaning of the joke sank in and with the help of normal day to day experience, he came to the conclusion that he was a “homo”, and that was bad thing, and the best way to deal with it is to hide it from everyone, especially himself.
“I thank my mom for getting me speech therapy to train me out of my lisp, I don’t know how I would have survived high school if the bully’s also had this to pick on,” said Antonellis. “But I did survive and I managed to get myself to art school in Boston. That’s when the real bullying started.”
In his first few years in Boston Antonellis experienced incredible freedom and also push back from the people around him.
When he turned 20, he had about 340 consecutive days of assaults.
“The most benign and common being called ‘faggot!” or “queer!’,” he said. “I got a lot of “nice hair cut thrown in”, which sounds fine, but when it’s screamed at you from a pick up truck of angry guys, it strikes fear at your core.”
Then there were special occasions when the taunt was accompanied with a shove to the side, a push to the sidewalk, punches, kicks, or even rocks thrown at him.
“Two of the most memorable assaults are the chewed up snickers bar that hit me in the eye at the end of the street where I lived in Jamaica Plain, and when my next door neighbors in Allston riled their dog up into a frenzy and chased me to my front door,” said Antonellis.
Antonellis said that every day he had to contend with the idea that someone was waiting for him somewhere outside his door, waiting to spew a bit of their anger at him.
“But I got up each morning and went to school and to work and came home,” said Antonellis. “I swallowed my panic and went on with my life.”
Antonellis said he learned to watch for signs of danger while walking assertively, with focus to avoid showing his own fear.
“I learned to watch for signs of safety too,” said Antonellis. “Each new town or neighborhood posed a challenge – which business could I walk into safely. For example, upon entering a bar, I learned to look at the bartending and wait for his or her greeting. If the bartender leers at you as you walk in, there’s nothing that will stop things from getting ugly. But if he or she treats you respectfully, professional this was often enough to keep things civil.”
Antonellis explained that in those days, the gay pride parade was more radical than it is now – politically, socially and sexually.
“Which made sense because there was still little protection for gays,” he said. “If your employer saw you marching in the parade you could lose your job. So it was the more radical gays who dared to face the city and announced that we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”
Then later in his 20s the rainbow flag started to appear.
“It was a way for business owners to say gays are welcome as much as everyone one else,” said Antonellis. It was a symbol of inclusiveness and diversity that gave organizations a tool for distinguishing themselves from the bigots.”
Antonellis said the respectful bartender communicated that the person in charge would not turn against people because they were gay and the establishment was not a bully.
“Bully. This is a key word or our time, one that spans all civil rights movements, all communities, all ages and classes,” said Antonellis. “This is why it’s important for you all to be here to witness that our local leaders are declaring that East Boston is not a bully. We will not turn on you because you are an underdog.”
Antonellis said the importance of the rainbow flag goes beyond gay pride and the community. It flies for everyone who has been bullied by their neighbors, classmates, employers, strangers and policy makers.
“It’s a symbol that the ones in charge promise to respect everyone,” said Antonellis. “And I am extremely grateful to Sal (LaMattina), Adrian (Madaro), Joe (Boncore), Celeste (Myers), and Massport for taking that stand and to all of you for coming to honor it.”