Two years ago, I drove 100 miles to Provincetown for Halloween. Where better than P-town, I reasoned, to dress counter to my preppy teacher’s uniform, a button-down shirt and ill-fitting khakis? It was a responsible image, or so I thought, and presented to my students an island of calm in their turbulent teenage lives. Those years are dramatic for many students, but my students at the vocational-technical high school often come from low-income, high-drama neighborhoods in Brockton, so I felt a responsibility to be a role model who wasn't interested in selling them anything stronger than Walt Whitman.
All this came at a cost to me personally. I have a strong iconoclastic side, but it never appeared at work, and rarely at home. My entire life often felt khaki-colored. Although not technically in the closet, I never discussed my sexual orientation or even my political views. Day after day, I was a neutral presence at the front of a beige classroom.
But on this warm autumn night, I had left my teacher drag behind. I wore black work boots and a biker’s jacket with no shirt underneath, a fake nose ring and dark rams’ horns on my forehead. As I walked down Commercial Street, I felt at first ignored, until a middle-aged guy with two buddies stopped in his tracks and laughed.
“I get it!” he said. “You’re horny!”
I just smiled.
Now I was way outside my comfort zone, but isn’t that what I had come for?
As the street filled with gay men on their way to the Crown & Anchor, I got a few appreciative nods. An hour later, though, the jacket weighed me down and the horns dangled loosely. Standing in a bar packed with dinosaurs, satyrs and leather men, I felt out-of-place. I stood at the periphery of the dance area, wondering what I should have expected. I have a history of detesting bars, especially gay ones. My annoyance must have often shown on my face. About 10 years ago, when I was living in New York, a peppy stranger noticed my scowl and said, “If you’re not having a good time, why don’t you just go home?” I did.
Over the years, I began to think that the problem was me, and not the bars. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: When a man shows interest, you run away, and so you meet no one. On this night, I resolved to be open to the universe of endless possibilities and give my teacher persona a rest. The universe answered shortly thereafter. Across the room, I saw two brown eyes staring at me. They were a part of some furry costume, a bear or a fox. I looked away, but when I looked back five minutes later, they were still staring. OK, I thought, this is your chance. I walked up to the bear and shook his hand.
“Name’s Alex,” I said.
“Lorenzo,” he said and gestured to two men to his left. “This is my husband, Todd, and my boyfriend, Karl.”
I waved to both of them, then moved to the side of the group. He doesn’t have a type, I thought to myself, as his two men were markedly different. The husband was about 6'3" with a paunch, and the boyfriend about 5’9" and fit.
It was difficult to talk over the thumping cacophony, but Lorenzo was a master. He leaned into my ear and put his hand on the small of my back. Since we'd just met, it was bold but effective, because I understood most of what he said. Like me, he was a public school teacher in an urban school. He was a competitive rower and traveled around the world to regattas. The conversation was winding down, so I began to leave, but there was one more item on Lorenzo’s agenda.
“Can I kiss you?” Now I was way outside my comfort zone, but isn’t that what I had come for? I shrugged an assent. We moved a foot away from the group. The kiss was not passionate, but warm and friendly, like Lorenzo. As we kissed, I couldn’t help noticing that unlike my nose ring, Lorenzo's was real. His arms were covered with tattoos, something I was too scared to consider. Like me, he taught urban teenagers, but unlike me, he was doing a much better job of presenting them with an image closer to his independent spirit.
And when homophobia came up in the readings, as it does in "Of Mice and Men," I did not hesitate to say I was gay, and how that passage affected me.
The next day I went back to my khaki-colored life in Boston, but over the next few months, I began to dress differently. My shirts were slightly more colorful and tapered; my glasses, a little more fashionable. I continued to lose weight and work out — students began asking me for workout tips, probably to distract me from grammar lessons. Another day, when the students had had enough of reading "The Glass Castle," I led them in a push-up contest. I won.
Even my boss noticed the change, and said that I was "aging in reverse." It wasn’t just my appearance that changed; my behavior did too. I smiled more and looked for opportunities to be playful with the students. And when homophobia came up in the readings, as it does in "Of Mice and Men," I did not hesitate to say I was gay, and how that passage affected me. I wasn’t truly aging in reverse — it’s more accurate to say that I was revealing what had been there all along: a strong, empathic gay man.
All these changes were incremental. It wasn’t that one night that changed me. I went to Provincetown because I had already started on a journey to becoming my most authentic self. Nonetheless, meeting Lorenzo was a reminder about the image we choose to present to the world and the role of playing dress-up. The horns, the boots and the jacket all revealed parts of my psyche that had always been there. Sometimes, what we wear every day is the costume.