The Oktoberfest crowd. (Photo courtesy of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.)

Ithaca, N.Y. — George Ferrari and his partner were walking down the Ithaca Commons Saturday afternoon when a man appeared in the doorway of Waffle Frolic, plate of food in hand.

Undeterred by the large Oktoberfest crowd, the man began to yell at Ferrari.

“I heard him shout, ‘Faggots should be hanged to die,’” said Ferrari, who is the CEO of the Community Foundation of Tompkins County. “And that is an exact quote.”

Ferrari said he didn’t feel physically threatened by the man. He responded immediately, pointing at him.

“I said, ‘You need to stop; you need to shut up; and you need to go back inside,’” Ferrari said.

“He looked a little shocked — a little taken aback — and he went back inside … most people who do this sort of thing aren’t used to be getting called into account.”

George Ferrari. (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)
George Ferrari. (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)

In an interview on Thursday, Ferrari made clear that he wasn’t seeking pity and that he knows he is far from alone in being on the receiving end of derogatory remarks.

But Ferrari stressed the importance of being clear-eyed about what this kind of incident says about Ithaca — that manifestations of bias and prejudice still exist, and that the city has room to improve.

“I think the idea that this is a great place and that it can be better — we have to be able to hold both of those ideas at the same time,” Ferrari said.

“If this can happen on a Saturday in broad daylight on a Commons full of people, what does that tell us about the work that needs to be done in our community? And the second part of that question is, ‘What part of that work are you willing to engage in?’”

“The bystander issue”

Shortly after the man went back inside, as Ferrari and his partner continued down the Commons, a woman who had heard the interaction turned to speak.

“She said, ‘What that guy said to you was messed up,’ and I said, ‘Yes, it was, and you could’ve said something as well. And the next time you hear something like this you need to say something,’” Ferrari recalled.

The woman looked back non-plussed, with a “sheepish” expression, Ferrari said.

Ferrari would later post about the incident on his Facebook page. He said part of the reason he did so was to raise awareness of “the bystander issue” — and the necessity for those who hear slurs, homophobic or otherwise, to speak up in opposition even when not personally attacked.

“I had the right to call that man to account and the right to call that woman to account for different things,” Ferrari said.

“Part of my frustration … is with the idea that we fall or stand alone on these sorts of incidents of abuse or verbal violence. I think we do better when we stick together.”

Forms of privilege

Ferrari is well-educated, a white man, and — at 6’2”, 250 pounds — no small physical presence.

“I have certain identitites that privilege me to avoid this more than other people,” he said.

Ferrari said this is maybe the third time he’s had such an incident in the past 10 years of living in Ithaca.

“I don’t think it’s extraordinary: I think everyday it’s likely that people in this community — whether because of sexism or racism or classism or homophobia — have to endure these sorts of things,” he said.

Ferrari said that, just as the election of a black president doesn’t preclude racism, the advance of gay marriage in America hasn’t ended homophobia — and may in some instances actually be increasing it.

“I do think it’s important for people to understand as marriage equality happens that there could be a concept of a backlash from those folks who feel like they’re losing something,” he said.

The Oktoberfest crowd. (Photo courtesy of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.)
The Oktoberfest crowd. (Photo courtesy of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.)

“I will figure out a way to handle it”

Ferrari and his partner Daniel Hirtler had been walking through the Commons on their way to the Cascadilla Gorge Trail.

After the incident, they discussed what had happened — but still made it to the trail.

“It made me angry; it made me frustrated; but it was not surprising and it was not shocking,” Ferrari said. “It did not ruin my day … we did not change our plans.”

As amazed as he was by the brutishness of the man’s words, Ferrari said it’s still important to be prepared to hear — and deal with — even the most vile epithets.

“There’s a sense of, ‘I got to figure out a way to handle this, and I will figure out a way to handle it,’” he said. “I felt confident and empowered in the way I handled it.”

After going to the gorge trail, Ferrari and Hirtler walked back through the Commons.

They passed right by Waffle Frolic.

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Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.