A few weeks ago, I found myself in the same room as the only person that I've ever physically fought. It was a fight that I’d gone into begrudgingly and for the sake of appearances—because I wasn’t going to let another guy hit me in front of a group of people without hitting him back. It was prove-yourself theater, and though two of us were in the cast, it was my one-man show.
It was over a girl, sort of, in high school in South Jersey. He—let's call him Jack—was dating a close friend of mine—let's call her Jill—and for reasons that have never been clear, there was a pronounced sense of tension between the two of us almost from the moment we met.
During my senior year, Jack started shoulder-checking my friends and I when he’d pass us in the hallway. After gym class one day, I approached him at Jill's locker. I asked him if he had a problem with his balance, and if that might be the reason he regularly ran into my friends and I. “Shut up, Rich,” snapped Jill. Whatever. I turned around and walked away.
And then I heard behind me: “What’s your problem?” and felt Jack’s fist land on my face from over my shoulder. I think I rolled my eyes, knowing that I’d now have to engage in this display for the sake of my high-school honor and legitimacy. I couldn’t just let someone sucker punch me.
I sighed. I had no animal need to fight the guy, no desire to rearrange his face. It was an obligation I had been roped into. My father taught me for as long as I can remember that if someone hit me, I had to hit him back, so that’s what I did, a few times. He hit me back. We ran out the clock, waiting for the fight to be broken up. My 9th grade geometry teacher eventually put me out of our misery. Neither of us were fucked up, and I was suspended for a few days in gorgeous late May in a beach town. I heard good reviews for my performance after, which is all I really wanted, anyway.
That was in 1997. In July of this year, back in Ocean City for the annual Night in Venice boat parade, I saw Jack again, for the first time in more than 16 years. He was at my father's house for a Night in Venice party (his wife is friends with my sister, Kate, who never made the connection). We were introduced, mumbled greetings and didn’t say anything to each other for the rest of the night. He stayed for hours, too, as long as I did. I didn’t know whether to admire his balls, or to take it as a sign of the psychopathy I long suspected in him.
When I ran into Kate in the mostly empty kitchen a little while after I’d had my brush with my one-time sparring partner, I said to her, “I have to tell you something.”
“I already know,” she said.
It's hard not to feel deflated every time I return to South Jersey. New York City, where I live now, isn't perfect—the openness and visibility of gay people means that we’re more easily spotted targets, if the rise of anti-gay hate crimes this year is an indication. But at least there is that openness—visual signals of welcoming, of relatability, of belonging. You will find your community in New York: This is why people—especially marginalized people—move here. It's a truism, but it's easy to take for granted.
Regular trips to South Jersey ensure I never will. The area is so white, so Christian, so straight. Gays can’t marry there, and you never see gay couples expressing affection publicly, if you see them at all. (I see so many obvious gay bears down there… and then their wives and children enter my line of vision and throw me off.) Gay beaches remain a thing of lore, whispered down the lane by those in the know (or listed on CruisingForSex.com). The only openly gay student in my high school told me at the time that South Jersey was notoriously homophobic, even compared to the rest of the country in the mid-‘90s. I have no idea what he sourced for data collection. Maybe just his feelings.
But things are changing. "It" does, in fact, get better. I met up with a good friend from high school recently, after being out of touch for several years, and she told me that a girl we graduated with remained in South Jersey, came out, and has adopted no fewer than four special-needs kids with her partner. “The whole town loves that family,” my friend told me. I never would have thought that possible based on what I witnessed growing up.
This summer, I noticed that a few of what feel like hundreds of junky, cookie-cutter t-shirt shops on the Wildwood, NJ, boardwalk now have small LGBT sections of available decals on display: "SORRY GIRLS, I’M GAY." Under a rainbow: "CELEBRATE YOUR TRUE COLORS." The only gay-related t-shirts I remember seeing growing up were the "AIDS Kills Fags Dead" shirt Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach wore (which, to be fair, I never saw for sale on the boardwalk), and one featuring a crude facsimile of the Trix rabbit that said, “Silly Faggot, Dicks Are for Chicks.” A few years ago, I saw one on the Wildwood boardwalk that said, "Romo is a Homo," a reference to the Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who is not gay, but disliked in a town whose nearest major metropolitan area is Philadelphia.
That gay people can now find cheap t-shirts that celebrate their identities is minor compared to the continuous material oppression faced by queer people in the U.S. and around the world. But silly and frivolous though they are, the t-shirts are a reflection of wider cultural change, garish canaries in a coalmine. The ephemera is infiltrated. Progress comes in fits and splotches, like a rash that spreads so much it takes over, altering the color entirely.
I still see the "Silly Faggot" shirt every once in a while—once recently on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, in fact. Even as the culture changes, there are enough small remnants of life in 1997 to remind you how different everything is now.
Like running into an old high school adversary at your dad's house. That amused me more than it bothered me. When life reruns your past so explicitly, it’s best to sit back and enjoy. What good would resistance do? How pathetic would it be to regress to full-on high school mode and fight the same useless fight, anyway? It’s not like Jack intimidated me, anyway.
“You’re much more intimidating than he is,” my mother told me in the kitchen at the party, pretending at objectivity. “Bigger. Stronger-looking.”
If that’s true, it’s no coincidence. I’ve engineered myself in the gym for a variety of reasons, one of which is masculinity insecurity. I don’t want to fight anyone (not when I’m sober, at least), but part of my strategy of keeping altercations at bay involves attempting to build my body into one that looks like it belongs to a person that you wouldn’t want to fuck with. No matter what I'm wearing on top of it.
After my father’s party, I ended up in Atlantic City. A few blocks from that T-shirt shop where I saw "Silly Faggot" is what's billed as “Atlantic City’s first and only gay casino nightclub”: Pro Bar, one of only two full-time gay establishments in the floundering gambling mecca (the other is Rainbow Room). It's well known and typically well populated on summer weekend nights, but difficult to access. From Resorts’ parking garage, you need travel through the casino’s twists, turns, and miles of aisles of slot machines to the hotel and then take an elevator up—unlike the many establishments that can be accessed via the casino floor.
You can’t get away with saying “we don't have that” anymore, but that doesn’t mean accessing it is going to be particularly easy in any given situation. That night, after walking through the casino for a few minutes, unsure of where I was going, I stumbled upon the hotel lobby. Behind the counter was a woman who looked to be in her 20s and another in her 40s, working together. Another, probably in her 30s, checked people in and fielded questions a few feet away from them. I decided to ask for directions.
Ahead of me in line was a group of guys: three Jersey Shore-style gorillas a la Ronnie, human walls of muscle and varying height/pigmentation. I only saw them from the back. I must have gotten there just seconds after they did.
“Do you know where Pro Bar is?” asked one to the two-woman team. I barely heard the “R” sound in “Bar,” so I figured they were from up north.
After a beat or two, the older woman told them flatly, “That’s a gay bar.”
A three-part harmony of guttural laughter exploded from the group. It sounded like circular burping. Buh-buh-buh-buh-buuuuh-bub.
“I was gonna say!” added the younger woman. “Because you do not look gay.”
The laughter continued. Buh-buh-buh-buh-buuuuh-bub. I chuckled to myself, not at the mild gay panic (really it was more akin to gay unease), but because the guys looked plenty gay from my angle. Their backs were broad designs of overlapping pneumatic muscles that I could see perfectly through their fitted shirts, which I assumed were V-necks. I'm not saying these guys were gay and ashamed that they were called out on it. Not necessarily. The truth could have been grayer than that. Have you ever been to a club in North Jersey? It looks and sounds a lot like a gay club you’d find in Chelsea or Hell’s Kitchen or in any other major city, really. The biggest difference is that in a straight place, the boys dance with boys only sometimes. How really out of place would these guys felt at Pro Bar?
“I was gonna say,” the younger woman repeated. “I’m glad you guys are cool with that because some people are so sensitive if you talk about anything gay.”
Her insistence on sharing her narrow conception of What Gay Looks Like started to piss me off. She seemed really relieved that everyone present had identified as heterosexual, eager to celebrate absence of otherness. I couldn’t help but assume that this woman was displaying the 2013 version of strangers attempting to bond over bigotry, like I’ve seen happen so many times before, especially in South Jersey.
Now that no one wants to be called a bigot, expressions of hate must be clandestine, coded, fresh-smelling. The amount of hate in her words and heart was ambiguous, but I know I was witnessing this woman’s open prejudices being confirmed to her by those three meatheads. They didn’t look gay to her, and lucky for her and her perception, they weren’t.
I couldn’t wait till it was my turn. I wanted to ask her the same question, loudly, and let her know that I’m asking because I am gay. I wanted to shake up her worldview, to show her that not every gay man is a twink or an off-duty drag queen (not that there is anything wrong with being either—the full-time feminine guys are the real revolutionaries).
I never got my chance, though. The other window opened.
I asked the woman, who looked like Camryn Manheim with extremely kind eyes, where I could get gum. She directed me up a ramp that was behind me to a gift shop a little bit more down the hall.
“And where is Pro Bar?” I asked.
Her eyes grew kinder, maybe even condescending.
“Also up that ramp and down the hall. Take the elevator to the 13th floor,” she gushed.
I thanked her. The three guys still hadn’t budged from their station, still hadn’t stopped burping their revelry. Who needs a gay bar when there's a party in the lobby?
Upstairs on the 13th floor were some very obvious twinks, loud and reedy, and some guys that would never scan gay to even the most trained of eyes. There were no fewer than three big groups of women there indulging what seemed like bachelorette parties with a cute, gay backdrop, each and every one also looking like Camryn Manheim.
It was deflatingly predictable end to night spent sloughing through the rough territory of progress: The gay-friendly mixing vaguely with the gay in a 13th floor ghetto.
If I could rearrange the night for maximum effect it would have ended hours earlier, at the party, after my father had brought out a bunch of pliable glow sticks. “One per customer!” my father told me, and I ignored him, grabbing 20 and covering myself in luminescent jewelry.
The kids found me quickly, demanding to know where they could get their own. One of them was Jack's son. When I outfitted him with a little necklace and a bracelet, he was sweet and curious and appreciative beyond my expectations.