Friday, December 19, 2008

Gay for a day in Virginia

Arlington, Va. -- One might suspect that the last place to launch an undercover Gaydar operation is in the stands of the Kettler Ice Arena or Iceplex or whatever the term de jour is for a fancy ice rink. Kettler is where the Washington Capitals hold their practices and other team events, which are open to the public. Arlington is a western suburb of Washington, a place most famous for the cemetery overlooking the nation's capital lies just across the Potomac that honors the men and women who fought and died in our wars. But is also the kind of place that combines modern suburban sprawl with the "heritage" of the Old South. As-of-yet unoccupied strip centers line the roads named for either where they go (Industrial Park Drive) or a weapon favored by the Confederate sympathizers who still live there (Musket Ball Court). Every so often you can drive by Yuppie emporiums like Aveda, Trader Joes and Whole Foods, where young Democrats are staking their claim to this part of former cradle of the Confederacy by planting their preferences for organic balsamic vinegar and daring anyone to make them shop at Safeway or Sears.

And it's not just professors done grading their exams who spend their weekday mornings watching the Capitals practice -- creepy stalkers who appear not to have been in the sun for 20 years, looking to get their photo collections autographed so they can put them up on eBay; the parents who've brought their young children over from the other rink where they were taking skating lessons; and then the one fading groupie who asked a player if he would sign her body "where the sun doesn't shine." A little surprised by this unusual request (which was, thankfully, denied), I snuck a look at this woman, and noticed that, in the florescent lighting of the rink, her body cast a considerable shadow over the floor.

But by far the best represented suburban demographic at the rink was the Office Space Guy -- the Dockers clad white -- excuse me, extremely Caucasian male, stomach slightly protruding over his waistline, sporting a short sleeve or denim long sleeve shirt bearing a corporate logo (Goodyear/Gemini; Jiffy Lube; Sprint/Nextel; Verizon; and so on) of some sort and soft-soled brown shoes that reminded me of the Buster Browns my mother bought me at Alfred's Shoes when I was 6 or 7. Hanging from a belt loop or their neck was a corporate ID security card -- complete with a photo that, in one case, bore a frightening resemblance to one of those stringy meth freaks who always says, "I just wanted to know what it felt like" after he's been apprehended for killing and sodomizing a string of 7-11 clerks in rural Kentucky. And, naturally, their obsessive participation in fantasy sports leagues equips them with all the insider info they need to assess the players performance on the ice.

"Dude," says one to his friend, "Theodore looks so bad out there that I could get one past him today."

"Dude, you are so right. And, like, what is the deal with Nylander?" says his friend, who is sporting some non-linear facial hair sprouting from the moles that dotted his face like small towns on a AAA TripTik. "Is he, like, just getting worse and worse?"

"Exactly what could you get past Theodore," I think to myself. "A bad check? Stolen credit card? Your cousin passing for your new girlfriend . . . what, exactly? You could shoot five hundred pucks from five feet away, assuming you can skate, on Jose Theodore (an admittedly average NHL goalie) and he wouldn't break a sweat." But I say nothing.

I learned a long time ago that engaging morons like this doesn't do anyone any good. From 1993-2000, I had a Baltimore Orioles Sunday season ticket plan. Next to me for three of those years was a guy whose answer to everything, at least at the beginning, was this:

"Ripken should move three steps to his right. I don't know what he thinks about out there but it sure isn't baseball," he would say, and then turn his head in every direction for some sort of nodding approval from fellow Section 84 members, something that never came. Then he would brush each hand down the opposite arm, as if he were relaying the steal sign to the runner on first, tug at his Sans-a-Belt slacks, pull up his black socks and kick his right shoe into the concrete floor as if he was a horse preparing to bust out of his stall.

One day, the temptation was too much. "Why do you want Ripken to move three steps towards third base with a ground-ball pitcher like Jamie Moyer facing a dead-pull left-handed hitter like (Ken Griffey) Junior," I asked him. "If anything you want to take away the middle by moving the shortstop to second base."

"Oh, well don't you just know everything," he responded, pushing, for emphasis, his big black glasses with mismatched clip-on shades up his zinc oxide-covered nose. "I suppose the next thing you'll tell me is that you played major league baseball."

"Acutally," I told him, "I was drafted by the Orioles out of high school, two years after Ripken. They wanted me to start in Class A, but I told them I wasn't about to ride the buses after batting .674 my senior year. I thought I was ready for the majors right then and there. Use me or lose me, I said. Edward Bennett Williams looked at me like I was crazy. I told him to fuck off right to his face. No shit."

He looked at my friend, who had leaned back in his seat to give this guy the "you're-in-over-your-head-stop-right-now-look." He snorted, looked straight ahead, and never again mentioned that Ripken should move three steps towards third base for the next 2 1/2 years.

But temptation got the best of me when I overheard the conversation behind me sitting at the Arlington rink earlier week.

"Dude," said an Office Space Guy, his voice clearly audible over the pucks that were boomeranging off the protective glass and boards, "that shirt you're wearing makes you look so gay. I can't believe you're wearing that thing in public." Obviously, these guys were on some sort of executive track because they were allowed to wear shirts without corporate logos to work.

"How would you know? Don't you have to be gay to know if a shirt looks gay," came the clever response from his friend.

"Dude, everyone knows that's a gay shirt."

By this point, it was clear that these two guys were not riffing on the "know-how-I-know-you're-gay-scene" from the 40 Year-Old Virgin. Be good, I pleaded with myself. Don't get into with it with them. Oh, shit . . .

"I don't think that shirt makes you look gay at all," I said, turning around to the Office Space Guy accused of violating some sort of unwritten heterosexual dress code. "If you had unfastened French cuffs and a striped pattern that went diagonal rather than vertical, you might pass as one of us. But not that thing -- you're good."

They looked at me dumbfounded.

"I kind of like it," I continued. "But my boyfriend the fashionista wouldn't be caught dead in it. Of course, that's why I'm here and he's working."

More silence.

"I like the power play unit -- Green on the point, Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom and Fleishman. It's actually a high-end NHL-caliber powerplay. What do you guys think?"

"Uh, yeah, I mean, you know, Ovechkin . . . he's awesome. And Backstrom and Semin, plus Federov, if he gets better," said the Gaydar-challenged fashion cop.

"We'll see," I said, and then turned around. The shirt discussion ended.

A few minutes later, one of the guys announced that he had to "take a leak," and I decided it might be fun to follow him to the men's room.

"How's it going," I asked as I stood next to him. "These guys are just unbelievable. Everything is just so damn fast. I think about the guys I play with and it's just a completely different game. Do you play?"

Continuing to stare down, as if something might radically change in his anatomical make-up between then and when he finished his business, he said, "No, I don't play but I am a big fan. I have season tickets."

"I have season tickets, too. Would you talk to my boyfriend," I asked as we stood at the sink washing our hands. "He will not go to a game with me, like he'll lose his clients if someone sees him at a game. Really, do you care what your stylist does when he's not working?" Now completely freaked out, and looking as though I was about to hand him my phone to call my non-existent boyfriend, I decided to give him a break. "See you later. Nice meeting you."

I returned to my seat in the stands right above the blueline. My new friends, however, had moved up several rows and down towards the goal. Far enough, I imagined them thinking, that they might not catch anything, or risk having to shake my hand knowing where, to them, they thought it had been.

For whatever reason, homophobia remains the last respectable legal form of bigotry in the United States. I must confess I wasn't always enlightened to the cause, not really understanding the difficulties of living a secret life openly ridiculed by people who would never think of making racist or anti-Semtic statements. It took me until my junior year of college, 27 years ago, to grasp the full intensity of anti-gay bigotry. A friend of mine left school that year when some housemates discovered he was gay through a fairly incontestable fact-finding process that I need not detail here. These guys wanted to kill him, or least want his "faggot ass" out of the house. Eventually, they calmed down; but they did make clear that he was not welcome back. Shortly after I graduated, I learned that one of the more vocal members of this posse had had an "experience" with our gay friend, and, according to him, didn't seem to mind it at all.

Visiting my friend at home one weekend, I had some long discussions with him about his life, the things he had been through, when realized he might be gay, and just how damn difficult it was to live a normal life. Growing up when I did, it was standard fare to make fun of the boys in my classes who weren't good at sports or played the trumpet by calling them "fags." Being a fag, however, didn't mean you were a "homo," which was the term we saved for people who we thought were "real" fags. But here I was facing a wholly novel situation: finding out a guy who was good at sports, loved baseball, liked the same bands I did, had an incredible sense of humor and one of the quickest brains I had ever run across, was gay. For a minute, I thought I might be gay, too.

"Do you think the fact that I can't get a date means I'm gay," I asked him in a moment of alcohol-assisted candor one night. I think I was more concerned than curious.

"No, just unattractive," he said. "You're not gay."

This fall, the usual assortment of anti-gay initiatives were on the ballots across the country. They succeeded, a strange anomaly in a year when Democrats swept the elections at every level. Some outlawed gay marriage; others made it harder for gay couples to adopt children. Using the electoral process to prevent gay Americans from doing things they cannot do (i.e., get married) is the ultimate in empty, symbolic politics. Perhaps one day someone will convince me that preventing people who love each other from getting married and raising children or participating as full equals in our civic life is a great idea. Until then, state-sanctioned homophobia represents bigotry in its rawest, most bilious form. The day it disappears will not be a moment too soon.

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