"How many kids do you have?" The familiar and annoying question came during my second or third visit — early on in the close relationship that develops between New Yorkers and the proprietor of their preferred deli. "None," I replied. He looked disappointed in me, cocksure of himself, and then almost hopeful, "Are you married?"
"No," I smiled devilishly, as if I were some kind of cad, which is not true. He seemed to approve.
Amin, as I would later learn is this Brooklyn deli owner's name, asked me again recently, "Why aren't you married?" His own children, a 5-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy, were playing with Hot Wheels between stacks of chips and cookies in the cramped space behind me, making good use of their imaginations. I didn't know what to say, so I replied, "Because I'm picky." This is of course another lie.
These are two of the more memorable of the countless encounters I've had with Amin over the past few months. Another was when he told me quite solemnly one day that people get cancer from eating pork. I remember leaving that night and taking particularly notice of Salah, the Muslim prayer, that's posted at the deli's exit. His wife, a pretty woman who wears a hijab, may or may not have been there. I can't remember.
Regardless, all of these details have made one thing clear to me: Amin's a religious man. He moved to the United States from Bangladesh sixteen years ago. He's in this mid-thirties, slightly older than me. He's also short and pear-shaped and has bright brown eyes. In addition to his deli gig, Amin works construction around New York City, mostly Brooklyn. He gave me his card. "American Construction," it reads.
Amin's in his mid-thirties, slightly older than me. He's short and pear-shaped and has bright brown eyes and a mop of wavy brown hair pressed under a deli cap. He smiles easily, even when he's exhausted from long shifts and watching his children, and always asks about my day. We clearly have a rapport. Or, at the very least, a mutual respect, and I suspect that telling him the truth — that I'm not married because I'm gay, because I haven't met the right man — would change that. So I keep living this little white lie, skirting the issue when it comes up. Is this living in the closet? Yes, of course it is.
The closet, as many of us know all too well, opens and closes. The hinges come off when we're in a completely safe environment — the back room of a gay bar should be a fine place — and can be sealed to varying degrees when we sense a less-than-friendly situation. A white power conference would be an acceptable reason to hide among the minks, for example. And there are some other situations in which passing as straight can prove useful, like when donating blood.
But what am I afraid of here? Why not come out? Do I fear Amin will refuse to serve me? Am I trying to avoid more awkwardness in an already socially confusing and frustrating life? I could always find another deli, if it came down to it. And why didn't I come out after the first or second line-of-questioning, as I may have when I was younger? That's easier to answer: Frankly, I was too tired to invite a conversation, and certainly not a potential confrontation or lecture.
And aren't I just terrible for making this assumption about Amin, that his background and marital expectations imply discriminatory attitudes, however educated that assumption may be? Yes, probably, particularly since he's never given any indication that he has a mean bone in his body. And maybe my own presumptions here are compelling reason enough to come out here. You don't change minds, not your own and not others, by avoiding an issue or otherwise obfuscating facts.
Need I cite the latest proof that coming out changes minds: Pew Research found that 32% of people who have come to support marriage equality over the past decade, 28% of all pro-equality voters, did so because they know someone who's gay. If Amin has misguided views on men who like men, maybe I can change his mind. Or who knows? Maybe he's known all along and is just waiting for me to say something first.