Ryan Kendall spends his days working to defend the civil rights of people behind bars. One day last month, he got on a train at McPherson Square during the afternoon rush hour, having spent the day reading the medical records of people in a Virgin Islands prison to see if they were getting proper health care. He was tired and just wanted to get home.
But before the train had gone three stops, he had his own civil rights violated, he says: He was threatened with violence and spat on because he’s gay.
“It was one of the most degrading experiences of my life,” Kendall said.
He says he was standing on the train when he heard a group of teenagers repeatedly use homophobic slurs amongst themselves. Kendall says he doesn’t believe in letting slurs he hears pass, so he told the group that he was gay, and that what they were saying was harmful, and they should knock it off.
He says the teenagers then threatened to beat him up and told him to get off the train, which was approaching his stop at Smithsonian anyway. As he started to get off, Kendall says, one of the teenagers ran up and spat on him, hitting him in the back of his head and the left side of his face.
A few days later, he was recounting the incident in a conference room at the American Civil Liberties Union, where he is a litigation fellow at the group’s National Prison Project.
“It really shows what they thought of my worth as a person, as a gay person," he said. “That I’m nothing and they could just treat me like dirt.”
He was thinking about how the other passengers on the packed train did nothing.
“I thought that at some point someone else would say something,” Kendall said. “But no one did. Everybody sat in their seats.”
Kendall says he’s also been thinking about what he’d tell the group of teenagers that spat on him if he could sit down and talk to them.
“I’d want to tell them my story, get them to see me as a human being and explain to them why it’s not OK what they were saying,” he said.
Kendall grew up in a conservative community in Colorado. When he realized he was gay, he says, his parents sent him to what’s known as conversion therapy, a largely discredited practice to try to turn gay people straight.
“I went off the deep end," he recalled. “I did a bunch of drugs, attempted to commit suicide, dropped out of high school. My life was basically a disaster.”
He didn’t want to discuss what happened during those conversion therapy sessions in this interview, but he did talk about tactics used by counselors during an interview with VICE News in 2014.
“Most of it was fear and intimidation: Your family is going to reject you, this isn’t normal, you’re going to get AIDS and die before you’re 30,” he told VICE. “I’d been told I was going to die, was going to go to hell.”
Kendall says he survived that attempt to change who he is — only to be spat on for being who he is.
Despite urging on social media, Kendall didn’t file a police report against the teenager who spat on him. He says he knows how an arrest can send a young person’s life spiraling “into a slow-motion tragedy.”
But he does have a wish: “I really hope as they get older that they’ll reflect on their behavior and one day are horrified by this."