I hate buying sneakers. Every time you go into Foot Locker, about a million guys in black-and-white striped shirts swarm down on you within seconds, saying things like, “How’s it goin’, buddy?” and “Hey, big guy, lookin’ for anything in particular?”. They’re always really jocky-looking, the kind of guys who used to make fun of me in high school for being a total wimp. Now I’m their “buddy” and “big guy”? Shut up, you phony referee. Don’t pretend like you care how my shoes fit. If we were in the cafeteria, you’d be flinging mashed potatoes at the back of my head, and don’t pretend otherwise just because you’re on commission.

On the other hand, the thing I like best about Big 5 Sporting Goods is that when you walk in there, the employees don’t pay any attention to you at all. Instead of being like the high school cafeteria, Big 5 is more like a school dance, where the jocks are too busy scoping out girls — or in this case, standing around looking bored — to pay much attention to a dork like me. So when I decided it was time for a new pair of sneakers, the choice was easy. Even without the Thompson Twins and Duran Duran, I’ll take a school dance over the cafeteria anyday. But as it turned out, my trip to Big 5 was more like high school than I ever imagined.

When Drew and I first walked in, a very angry man was asking to see the store manager. As I started scanning the shoe racks, I realized things were on the verge of getting out of hand. Soon, there was shouting. It took a few moments of listening in (and it was impossible not to hear what was going on) before I pieced the story together, but this is what seems to have happened before we walked in:

Two store employees were standing around talking, as the employees at Big 5 seem trained to do whenever there are customers in need of assistance. The angry man and his companion were trying on shoes. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t take a very strong gaydar to lead one to assume that these two particular men were homosexual. One of the chatting employees says to the other, “What a fag”, and the presumably gay men overhear. That’s about where my boyfriend and I walked in.

The employee insisted his comment wasn’t directed toward the customer. He claimed he was talking about “a friend” of his. The customer felt that this point was irrelevant and that the “fag” comment made him feel unwelcome in the store. The employee’s response, which I quote verbatim: “What do you want? It’s freedom of speech.”

This did not sit well with the customers.

Nonetheless, the employee repeated the “freedom of speech” line as his sole defense, over and over. Every counter-argument the customers made was refuted with, “It’s freedom of speech. Freedom of speech!” At some point during this, the assistant manager stepped into the conversation. A very young-looking African-American man who appeared as if he was probably wearing a tie for the first time in his life, he seemed to be in way over his head.

The customers tried to educate the Big 5 workers. First, they directed their arguments at the employee, who seemed to be of Asian descent. “What if someone said the word ‘Ch–k’ in here?” Then, customer’s friend turned to the African-American manager: “What if instead of ‘What a fag’ someone said ‘What a n—er’?”

Suddenly offended, the manager stepped right in. “Whoa, whoa! You can’t say that in my store!” No one seemed to realize that the customer had just made his point. The customers finally gave up and stormed out. I just stood there with a pair of sneakers in my hand, wondering what to do. The 8 1/2’s were a little tight. Should I try to find them in a 9?

Okay, I wasn’t really thinking about the shoes at that point. I was mostly wondering if I, as a bystander, should step in. Well, that didn’t stop Loudmouth Lady. “I saw the whole thing!” a voice called out from the clearance racks. “And I’ll defend you!”

The employee shrugged, still clinging to his memories of high school civics. “It’s freedom of speech,” he explained.

Loudmouth Lady concurred. “It’s not like you were going to lynch him or something!” Having heard this woman ranting, I now take back anything I may have said about the average person on the street being as qualified to be president as George W.

People are crazy.

The customers’ exit had made things more, rather than less, disturbing, so Drew and I decided it was time to leave. On the way out, Drew stopped to talk to the assistant manager. We waited a minute while the scared kid was busy with a phone call (Drew says he was relating the incident, probably to his boss), then decided to let it go. Maybe we’d write a letter about it tomorrow if we were still angry.

We got as far as the parking lot before I stopped and rethought our decision to leave. There was no denying that Drew and I were both pretty shaken up by the whole thing. Sure, I didn’t witness the initial incident, but if the employee had simply apologized instead of citing the Bill of Rights, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. The customers probably shouldn’t have brought out the “n” word, but if the assistant manager was so troubled by that epithet, he should’ve been able to recognize that “fag” was equally offensive to some people and therefore, it also had no place in his store. Furthermore, all of this happened in West Hollywood, LA’s gay neighborhood and my home. The employee’s behavior would’ve been inappropriate anywhere, of course, but I especially don’t want to feel unwelcome on my turf.

Drew and I did have a role here. We could make these points intelligently and, since we weren’t directly involved in the argument, without being ruled by passion. I decided we should go back into the store.

Unfortunately, the assistant manager was still on the phone. So we left again. And went back again. And left again. And went back again. (Standing up for myself isn’t my forte. Again, I blame high school.) But we kept going back, and eventually the assistant manager got off the phone and we got up the nerve, and we told him how we felt. For me, it all came down to one thing: “I just don’t need all of this when I’m trying to buy shoes.”

The manager, who looked like he desperately wished he had called out sick that day, said he was sorry. Actually, what he said was, “I apologize for the inconvenience.” Inconvenience? Witnessing a callous indifference to homophobia is a lot of things, but I wouldn’t call it an “inconvenience”. It was a generic apology, like some way of avoiding any admission of guilt. It sounded like something he had been trained to say. And I couldn’t help thinking that the whole situation could’ve been avoided if only, instead of training their employees to say, “I apologize for the inconvenience”, Big 5 trained them not to say “fag”.

Drew, who’s slightly better at standing up for himself than I am, called the store the next day and spoke to a real manager. He got a real apology and learned that the employee had been suspended. Drew told the manager he didn’t want anyone to be fired, but I don’t have much sympathy for the guy. Maybe now this Defender of the First Amendment can find work with the ACLU. At the very least, he’ll learn a lesson. According to the manager, the suspendee had been transferred from a store in the Valley and may not have been sensitive to the community he was serving. (Apparently, there are no gay people in the Valley.) It was comforting to know that somebody at least gave a shit. But still, I have a suggestion for Big 5. Maybe a little employee sensitivity training would be in order.

It may not be my place to advise Big 5 on its company policy. But hey, it’s freedom of speech.

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