Early Memorial Day morning, really early, while the city is still at rest with nary a bird warbling, my partner and I stumble sleepily to the subway. The streets are silent and wet from a passing shower, the air is Aspen-fresh, and it’s all I can do to suppress a Rodgers and Hammerstein outburst declaring to the world that it is good to be alive.
We head to the A train and Far Rockaway where we have been invited by a lady friend to spend the day at her mansion by the sea. Food, drink, music, friendly people, and a splash in the salty surf are on the menu. The day goes by in a flash as happens when you’re having a good time. Twelve hours later, tired and happy, we reach our stoop back in the South Bronx, agreeing that the day had indeed been fabulous.
Our friend, without a doubt, is the hostess with the mostest. We dined, drank, laughed, sang, danced, and even had time for serious, meaningful conversation with a fascinating group of people from the four corners of the globe. We especially liked one couple, a pair of husbands in their 30s who had just become the proud fathers of twin girls, tiny 10-month-olds just struggling to find their feet and walk. The miracle of modern medical science had given this couple two beauties: one little girl had dark African features resembling her Ethiopian biological father, the other was a blonde little Swede who took after her Nordic biological dad. The two dads before us.
Even though Memorial Day had a specific theme to observe — remembrance of fallen heroes who had defended our shores — I somehow felt, after that precious time by the sea with those wonderful people, that I wanted to turn the day into a celebration of life and all the good things it had brought to us, to everybody, gay people and straight. For those few hours, I really felt the whole world was one.
But reality does have a way of tapping on your shoulder and saying, “No, no, no, it’s not really like that!”
Reality in this case was entering our street, a working-class block in the South Bronx and experiencing the volte-face that occurs as we head down the street to our house. Typically a friendly, rather noisy neighborhood with a strong stoop culture where neighbors hang out together, laughing and talking, sharing news and gossip, the block suddenly becomes stony silent as we near our stoop. As is their custom, most of the neighbors actually turn their backs to us, one of the signs of ultimate insult, several muttering, “llegan los maricones” (“here come the queers”).
It had not always been like this, this freeze that we now receive on a daily basis. When we first arrived on the block 16 years earlier, it was all friendly smiles and hand shakes. I was truly touched by the neighborly hospitality and warmth we received back then, a far cry from the rather cold social chemistry that characterized our old area in Manhattan, where a woman in our building’s elevator once accused me of “over-sharing” when I started a conversation on our long ascent to the 20th floor.
But the South Bronx honeymoon did not last. After a month or so, the greetings and smiles became less frequent and enthusiastic as the neighbors put two and two together and figured out that two older guys living together in a big Victorian house must be gay. Then one day, their greetings stopped all together; almost nobody spoke to us anymore. Not a person to be ignored or put down easily, I decided not to be deterred by what was obviously hostile behavior. I continued to say good morning and buenos días, until one day I realized I was talking to myself, so I stopped.
And this cold shoulder was not the worst treatment I would experience. Some months ago, in what seemed to me to be a routine discussion with my neighbor about parking my car in a space she normally used, I suddenly and inexplicably found myself the object of an angry, homophobic onslaught that culminated with, “You motherfuckin’ homo….!”
My partner and I constantly discuss this problem of bad vibes on our block and we are undecided about what we should do. Some days we think we should sell and move. But move where? Is running away from a problem the solution? Will it be any better in another location? Besides, we love our stately brownstone and the lovely backyard garden and could never, in 2014, find another affordable place that approaches the beauty and quality of our historically landmarked Fawlty Towers. Why should we let a bunch of narrow-minded know-nothings drive us away ?
Needless to say, we have become rather thick-skinned and have learned to suffer the slings and arrows of meanness that are thrown our way even in current-day New York City.
Some years ago, I was fired from a job because I was gay. It was a position I had worked for all of my life — the career I had cherished and dreamed of having and excelled at once I was in the job. I did not accept defeat, but instead, after a year in emotional and professional purgatory, bounced back and somehow managed to find an even better job. But wouldn’t you know it, after years of advancing professionally and gaining praise for my work in this new job, I ended up one fine day with a homophobic supervisor who tried to get me fired again? And this was at the United Nations, an organization that trumpets its embrace of human rights, its walls plastered with posters proclaiming “Year of the…!”
Lesson learned: even in the most politically correct of work environments, if you have the bad luck to end up in the wood pile with a queer-hating boss, you’re done for. Luckily in this case, a knight in shining armor in the form of a new boss appeared on the scene, liked me, respected my work, and brought me back in out of the cold.
But the experience taught me a valuable lesson: gay people have to be extra cautious in almost everything they do. It’s not enough to work hard and please people, you have to cultivate a support group as a double insurance that you can keep your job as you deserve to do. “Watch your back !” is a good motto for all of us to follow.
And that’s why my partner of 33 years and I are not getting married… not just yet and maybe not for some years to come. There is nothing we would want more than to be joined officially, for the world to know that we are the loving couple we are. And our tax accountant tells us there are distinct financial advantages to being married.
So what’s the problem, you may ask ?
The problem is my partner’s job. He is well respected and liked by his colleagues and is rising in the organization as he deserves to do. But he is also in the closet and chooses to stay there for good reason. And that is because a significant number of senior management in his firm are homophobic. Not formally, mind you, but anti-gay without question. Little remarks and anti-queer jokes suddenly pop up when the level of old-boy intimacy spikes during office happy hour. So sometime we have to make a choice: out and proud or staying employed. Since we have a big mortgage to pay off, for now the choice is not difficult.
Trawling the dictionary I came upon some interesting definitions for PRIDE: 1-justifiable self-respect; 2-inordinate self-esteem bordering on conceit; 3-delight or elation arising from some act or relationship; 4-proud or disdainful behavior; 5-ostentatious display; 6-a company of lions; and 7-exultant. And here is something to contemplate: pride (or hubris) is considered the original and most serious of the Seven Deadly Sins.
There were also some useful entries for PRUDENCE: 1-the ability to govern oneself by use of reason; 2-sagacity or shrewdness in management of affairs; 3-good judgment in the use of resources; and 4-caution or circumspection as to danger or risk.
So let us celebrate Gay Pride in a loud, clear, and joyous way, taking satisfaction in the unbelievable progress that has been made in recent years to make our lives more decent and equal. But let us also not forget to be wise and think before we act, knowing that the world we face on a daily basis is not always that mansion by the sea where my partner and I spent an idyllic Memorial Day. Watch your backs, guys and gals!
Sam Oglesby, a journalist and author of four books, most recently “Wordswarm,” won the 2013 New York Press Association Award for Best Feature article, written for Gay City News.