I wore my least favorite work suit to my friend’s Halloween party, put in some contacts and painted my head blue and presto: instant Dr. Manhattan costume. Or so I thought.
The party was in the West Village, right at the heart of the annual Halloween parade. Traffic was so tight that the cab dropped me and my girlfriend off a few blocks away. Maggie’s costume was a magnificently form-fitting hot pink with a plunging (or awesome) neckline, but I got all the catcalls. “Blluuueeee MAaaaan GRooouuup” washed over us punctuated, oddly, with a rapid-fire “what’s up, dude-from-Arrested-Development?”
I thought the Watchmen movie was big enough that my lazy costuming wasn’t that much of a stretch. But that’s the mistake that nerds always make: thinking the rest of the world is tuned into their obsessions despite all the contrary evidence once we disconnect from the Internet. Now that I’m grown, it’s not that painful to find out that I’m as self-deluded as I ever was. But it’s still kind of a surprise.
We got separated at the party, Maggie happily practicing her Mandarin with a new Chinese friend. Speaking in Mandarin lights up her soul — and while it makes me really happy to see her happy, it’s not something that I can participate in very easily.
I wandered to the other side of the apartment, where my buddy’s charming alcoholic brother was doing some kind of a stumbling shamble-dance next to a tall Latin woman poured into a snug black dress. She was carrying a dumb little plastic club and had some fur around her neck in a head-fake towards “sexy-cavewoman,” but she could have dropped the charade and been La Elvira, Mistress of the Dominican Republic.
She looked me up and down and whispered with the guy in the corner. Then she looked over at me, her eyes lit up, and walked up to make some conversation. Just because I’m absolutely not available doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun to rap with a pretty lady at a party.
Like I said before, being that deluded nerd never completely leaves you.
She sipped her drink and smiled right at my eyes, showing two rows of teeth bright enough to stun a deer. And then she said “I can’t figure out what you are. Are you a faggot?”
I said “WHAT?“
Her eyes widened, darted around the room. Then she leaned back in, closer to my blue ear and said “Uh, I just was trying to figure out what your costume was and I asked that guy in the corner, and he said you were a faggot. So I asked you if you were a faggot. But I uh, I don’t know what that means. What’s a faggot?”
I paused for a minute. There was a ten-car pileup on the freeway between my brain and mouth, and it was really difficult to answer. For the first time in years, I was tremendously, deeply offended. And I’d kind of forgotten what that felt like.
These are the cars that were crashing in my skull:
1) I’m not gay. At all. I could walk across the room and produce a reliable testimonial if I needed to.
2) There’s nothing wrong with being gay. I didn’t want the huge amount of <b>pissed</b> in my voice to make it sound like I was saying “oh HELL no, NO WAY.”
3) The gay couple that I used to live with was at the same party. They didn’t come out so much as burn the closet down around them. One of them was dressed like some sort of a disco cowboy/pony combo, and the other could have jumped off the vampire float in New Orleans’ Pride parade. Objectively speaking, I wasn’t even wearing the gayest costume in the place.
4) I pretty much started my career managing AOL’s online Gay & Lesbian Community, despite lacking a rather obvious qualification. At that time, AOL was pretty much the Wal-Mart of the social Web, and AOL Gay & Lesbian was the only semblance of a social outlet for closeted kids in Arkansas, for grown gay men in Virginia, or pretty much any gay person who didn’t have a real-life social network of their own for whatever reason.
I made some deep, powerful friendships there and just dumped my whole soul into the job. Like, to the point where when I meet gay men now, I get a little overexcited. Which is probably weird and confusing for them. Suffice it to say that the job changed me a lot, largely for the better.
5) I was a frequent flyer on the fists of a lot of neighborhood bullies in the Northern Virginia suburbs. My mother says that every time report cards came out I’d come running home with a bunch of A’s and a black eye.
When I was in the fifth grade, I got held down by a bunch of guys several years older than me who took turns kicking me in the face and ribs and calling me a faggot over and over again. I managed to crawl away and get on my bike and make it home with fairly minor injuries. But I was scared to go outside my yard alone after that, and I always freaked out really, really hard whenever I was attacked. Which was probably pretty satisfying to bullies, now that I think about it.
I pretty much heard the word faggot every time I got beaten up or otherwise publicly humiliated until sometime in the eleventh grade.
So even though I’m a straight white guy with no direct claim to the word, basically a pretty privileged life all around, hearing that word from a stranger really bothers me.
Spalding Gray once said that there are no bad words, just bad contexts. And I see his point. If the drunk guy dancing in the corner had called me that, I’d have thought he was kind of an idiot and let it go. I know him, though. He’s my good friend’s brother, and after a certain point in the evening you’re doing well if that’s the worst stunt he pulls. I can’t say I approve of his word choice, but I know the contents of his heart.
This woman I don’t know from ANYWHERE, and the stakes are a little higher.
I said “Listen, I think there’s a misunderstanding here. I’m Jeff,” and ran through the whole “what’s your name, where you from, how do you know the folks here” thing that you do when you’re meeting someone at a party.
Turns out she’s the sister of the hostess and grew up in the Bronx. That’s when I snapped a little.
I said “You grew up in New York City, a native English speaker, and you don’t know what that word means? I find that really difficult to believe.”
She said “No, what’s it mean?”
I told her, “Well, it’s a really derogatory term for a homosexual person, and a pretty stupid thing to say when you’re meeting someone at a party. Not unlike calling a black person a nigger.”
If my head hadn’t been painted blue, I’d have been purple with outrage.
She looked at me and put her hand to her mouth. Invisible waves of social horror dumped over her head like some kind of psychic Nickelodeon program. She said “Oh my God. Oh my God. I am so sorry. I … I … I didn’t know what that means.”
I said “Well, you do now” and went outside for some air.
As I left, I turned back and saw the host and hostess walking over to my ignorant friend in slow motion, saw her frantically explaining herself. I just wanted to leave for a minute.
Hammered zombies staggered up Sixth Avenue, boozing their way deep into method territory. A couple of Smurfs weaved past and a collection of guys in hoodies with skull masks pushed up on their foreheads leaned up against a pole and hollered at a vomiting Sexy Red Riding Hood. Everything about the night was gross and cartoonish and outlandish, and it was just a marvel to watch it all smearing around on the sidewalk like that.
I took a deep breath, sucking in stale leaves and hot pizza and dirty metal air from the West 4th stop and held it for a minute, exhaling. Later, I’d go back inside and make some kind of awkward peace. In a few hours, I’d talk to this poor idiot woman and learn about her job, her schooling, her struggle to raise two teens as a single mother.
I’d find a part of her heart to connect to and see her as a whole person who’d made a stupid social blunder powered by her own cultural ignorance. I’d understand that she had actually looked deeply inside herself and seen something that she wished wasn’t there and just wanted to die from the sheer embarrassment. Which is pretty much what you wish for people like that, plus that they be stripped of their voting rights on the spot.
But for that moment she was the bad guy and I was filled with a totally justified, righteous fury. I’m a straight white male, and there’s not much righteous anger that I can actually claim as my own. The world really can’t offend me that much.
I just wanted to savor this feeling, to roll it around in my mouth a little and examine its bouquet before doing the right thing by my friends that hosted the party and just letting the whole thing go.