As a professional comedian and sociology professor, I am always searching for either the humor or social relevance in everything around me. Without question, recent events have made this obsession worse. I have found that this Covid crisis has had the strange effect of sending me into occasional moments of unexpected, deep, self-reflection. Comically, they tend to happen at the most uninspiring times. One such moment occurred this morning at 11:34 AM. Upon learning that my boring zoom meeting had been postponed, I planted myself on the couch and celebrated by devouring the leftover Italian food I ordered the night before. After checking my social media for the 42nd time in two hours, I decided I should finally put pen to paper. That’s when an incredible text popped up on my phone….
“HAPPY PRIDE PROFESSOR” ????
Ordinarily, a warm little text like this would be reciprocated with nothing more than a sweet but quick expression of gratitude before I moved on to my next errand or thought. This time, however, something made me pause for thought. It was a revelation. Although I am an openly gay person, I have never defined myself by my sexual orientation. I never saw gay pride as something that I needed as much as others around me might have. I always assumed that my sexuality played a poignant, yet small role, in my successes over the last decade. Sure, I am proud of who I am, but “Happy Pride” was never really directed to me, as I never really thought I needed that type of affirmation. In fact, this was the first time anyone had ever genuinely expressed this greeting directly to me alone. Little did I realize the significance and timing of this little text.
It was exactly 12 years ago this month when I endured one of the most traumatic and painful moments of my life. It is an incident that I have never publicly spoken about for many reasons, particularly because I thought it would hinder me. It portrayed weakness, shame, and pity. Today I realized that the opposite was true. What happened that night was the catalyst for everything I am proud of today, and the universe revealed this to me this in that timely little text.
I was the victim of an extremely brutal, violent, bloody, and unprovoked gay bashing.
One late Thursday night in June of 2008, after a standup comedy performance, I decided to meet up with some of my other comedian friends at nearby bar. As we wound down the night, I sat down at a table for one last drink with when someone tapped me on the shoulder from behind. As I slowly turned around in my chair, the angry voice cut through the merriment: “Hey Freddy…you FAGGOT”.
His huge fist cracked dead center onto my face with such intense power that my nose cracked instantly in half. I was immediately knocked unconscious as my broken face snapped backwards and I fell on to the sticky wet floor. I awoke about 30 seconds later, my face in a huge pool of my own blood and shards of broken glass embedded in my arm. The pain was excruciating, and blood would not stop pouring out of my face. I could not see from my left eye, my face swelled, and the room continued to spin around me. I never saw his face. All I saw was the enormous fist. Video surveillance shows he said something as he stood over me, then immediately fled the scene. The police arrived on the scene within minutes, as did fire rescue. I suffered a complex fracture to my upper nose (bone), a massive concussion, major blood loss, deep bruising of the eye socket bone, and a major laceration to my face. I would eventually require surgery and months of painful recovery to have proper nasal function again. I still don’t. I met with the police several times to assist them with the investigation, but they seemed bothered by my case. They knew it was a hate crime, yet the Chief of Police angrily ordered me to “stop calling it that”.
Two years later, a stranger with the exact same description and M/O attacked a gay man sitting at a table in a similar establishment. The victim died on the scene. Police think it could be the same criminal who attacked me. To this day, there has never been an arrest in either case.
I soon learned that this horrific incident wasn’t just about that night. It was about my life. Witnesses said this person had been stalking me at my comedy shows, and he always seemed particularly offended when I proudly spoke about my sexuality on stage. He apparently was seen alone at four of my shows. As one of South Florida’s first openly gay stand up comedians, I have often regaled “straight” audiences with my famous impersonations of flamboyant south Florida characters such as Latina medical assistant “Lissette from Hialeah”, or the outrageously glamorous astrologer “Walter Mercado”. After the incident I asked my therapist what I should do. Perhaps being so “open” about my sexuality was not helpful to my career? Perhaps comedy is not worth pursuing? Perhaps I should not share my personal experiences when lecturing in class about social injustice, LGBTQ issues, or basic sociological paradigms? Perhaps my advice and support to students and other young people struggling with self-awareness issues is not completely valid or even welcomed all the time? Perhaps I should be accepting the progress that has been made in social acceptance of the LGBTQ community so far and not push it any further? Perhaps this was a lesson for me to be more cautious about who I am, and that being “gay” was not appropriate all the time? Perhaps I need to try and “act gayer”, change my circle of friends and adopt an exclusively gay circle of friends and lifestyle? How long would it take for me to have “pride” in my sexuality – and was it even warranted if this pride could drive others to try and kill me?
The answer was there all along, and I did not realize it until that incredible little text this morning.
It was that horrible incident which has secretly given me pride in being a gay man. Since that day I have subconsciously been bolder, stronger, more public, and very PROUD about who I am. The personal growth and confidence I have gained since is apparent in everything I do, and it is the main reason behind my impressive successes ever since. I have taken the anger from that day to fuel 12 consecutive years of I unbridled artistic, scholastic, and emotional effort – and I am just getting started. I once felt like a victim, but today I feel like a martyr for the beating and bleeding I took because of my sexuality. I wear it as a badge of honor to inspire others who will face similar injustices in the future for simply being who they are. So, thank you, my dear student, for your amazing text to me this morning. It was an acknowledgement 12 years in the making, and indeed filled with happy pride ????
Freddy Stebbins is one of Miami’s most critically acclaimed comedians, and in his 14th year as a Professor of Sociology and Social Sciences at Miami Dade College. A Miami native, he often combines his passion/knowledge of Miami’s colorful history and characters both on stage and in the classroom. He often serves as an MC for large public events around South Florida.