Once Upon a Time
By Bill Clegg
Illustration by Marcos Chin
EARLIER THIS YEAR, on a quiet Sunday morning in May, I went to Barneys in New York City to buy a tie to get married in. I went early to avoid the afternoon crowds in Midtown, and when I got to the Union Square subway platform, it was nearly empty. For a short while I waited alone until two men who looked like business colleagues — fortysomething, fit, suited, talking seriously — came down the steps and stood an arm’s length apart a few yards away from me. Eventually the Q train arrived, and they got on the same empty car I did and, as before, stood colleague-appropriate distance from each other, spoke occasionally, and checked their iPhones. I didn’t notice them exit the subway when I got out at the Fifth Avenue stop. I went the wrong way at first, then doubled back toward the 58th Street exit. As I turned the corner into the stairwell, I saw the two men again. They had cleared the landing and were ascending the steps side by side, closer than before, holding hands. When my shoes scuffed the first step they visibly startled, immediately let go of each other, and hurried up to the street.
How silly, I thought. How once-upon-a- time-in–New York City.
A FEW WEEKS LATER, my husband and I got married. The ceremony was in the Hudson Valley, officiated by the silver- haired rector of the old Episcopal church we go to on weekends. The reception was under a tent in the backyard of the house we rent, and there was a band, both our families, friends, colleagues, lots of toasts, and children everywhere. People waved in the driveway as our car drove off toward a three-week honeymoon.
Days after we came home, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA and threw out the Proposition 8 case, and our marriage became not just legally recognized in the state of New York but federally. I am 42, I graduated college in the early ’90s, and I grew up 30 minutes away from the church we were married in, and none of this — not then, and not for a long time thereafter — had been imaginable.
I DID NOT meet anyone who identified publically as gay until my early twenties, when I met a friend of my girlfriend’s the year before moving to New York. He wore earrings and crossed his legs and said words like “honey” and “sweetheart,” and I remember being worried for him (and no doubt my closeted self) in the Mexican restaurant in suburban Connecticut where we first met. Most of the time, I forget how scary it was to be gay. The day-to-day fear I felt when I was first coming out and in public with my first boyfriend. How resistant I was to public displays of affection and how I would not even hold his hand unless we were in Chelsea, where there were, then, more gays than straights. It’s more than 15 years since that time, and I now live in Greenwich Village and work in book publishing, and even though I am the only out homosexual in the division of the company where I work, I do not worry or wonder about what anyone thinks about me being gay. I hold hands with and kiss my husband all the time — in restaurants, movie theaters, the lobby of our building, subways, everywhere. I do not in my day-to-day life feel unsafe because of my sexuality.
ON THE EVENING of May 5, Nick Porto and Kevin Atkins, a gay couple in their twenties, walked arm in arm near Madison Square Garden. A group of men shouting anti-gay remarks pushed them to the ground and beat them. Both were hospitalized. Five days later and a few blocks away, two men were attacked by at least five men who shouted gay slurs, chased after them, and violently assaulted them. Both were hospitalized. A week later, a young man from Brooklyn went out for drinks in the West Village. His name was Mark Carson, he was 32 years old, and he managed a gelato shop in Grand Central Station. Elliot Morales, shouting homophobic slurs at Mark and his friend, followed him to the corner of West Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue, where he shot him in the face and killed him. My husband and I live three blocks from that corner.
IT WAS THE day after the news broke about Carson’s murder that I went to find the right tie to get married in. I stood in the men’s department at Barneys scanning the tables and as I did, I noticed a beefy guy in a dark suit keeping close; I moved, he moved. I stopped, he stopped. I assumed he was a security guard. I had on bleach-stained shorts and a worn T-shirt, so maybe he thought I was shoplifting. I imagined what he thought of the other well-heeled, fashion-minded men in the store pawing the cashmere and silks, modeling the garments before the many mirrors. He looked like an ex-cop. I imagined him shouting at big- screen TVs in sports bars, during the commercial breaks making cracks to his pals about the fussy queens who parade in and out of the dressing rooms at his day job. He stepped closer to where I stood and I flinched. Before I could step away, he held out a pale, lime-colored tie and said, “This one, definitely.” He spoke with such authority and held the tie with such reverence that the gay-bashing security guard instantly transformed into an elegant, opinionated salesman.
I EXHALED and laughed at myself silently as he handed me the tie. I told him it was to wear at my wedding in a few weeks, and that my husband-to-be was going to be wearing a silver tie, which ruled out the one I’d originally had in mind. He nodded and told me that he understood, that he hated looking like a matched set with his boyfriend. He may very well shout at large-screen TVs in sports bars, but this man definitely does not mock anyone who cares what he is wearing.
I bought the tie and, as I walked down Madison toward the subway, I wondered what had made me so skittish. I thought of Carson and the headlines from the weeks before, about the gay guys walking arm in arm who had been beaten. As I went down the same subway steps I’d gone up earlier, I remembered the furtive couple, how startled they were, how they had been holding hands and then not.
It didn’t seem so funny now, so once- upon-a time. That evening, I went to see the makeshift memorial for Carson on the corner of West Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. In the doorway of the recently closed Barnes & Noble, among the bodega flowers, candles, and cards, someone had written in black Magic Marker on a piece of thick red paper: a gay man was brutally murdered here last night.
A MONTH LATER, my husband and I were in South Africa on the last leg of our honeymoon. We stayed at a small lodge on a game reserve where we saw only straight couples and traditional mother-and-father-with-children families. A few days after we arrived, our guide, George, who grew up in a nearby village, told me there were no gay black people. He did not say this aggressively, but rather calmly, as a statement of fact. I pointed to my quarter-black husband and said, “George, his grandmother is darker than you are.” He laughed and said my husband was not what he had meant by “black.” A few days later, he and another guide from the lodge took us to visit the nearby village, to see where many of the people who worked at the lodge grew up and still lived, and to hear traditional songs sung by the local schoolchildren. As we piled into the back of the Jeep, from the driver’s seat, George described what we could expect in the village, and offered some advice: We should behave conservatively. I asked him what he meant, and he said that we shouldn’t behave the way we had at the lodge and in the Jeep over the last few days. I asked him again what he meant. He turned around to face me and my new husband, the man I had just married legally in a crowded church in front of all of our friends and family, the man I was on my honeymoon with. George spoke plainly, impatiently, as if what he was saying was obvious: “No holding hands.” ␣