|The pink shorts|
This weekend was supposed to be fun. After a long two weeks at work, and an especially draining weekend working the Stonewall Street Festival in Ft. Lauderdale, I was ready to let go of the day-to-day stress and unplug. When a friend suggested we spend Sunday at a water park on International Drive I was excited. It was the perfect opportunity to pull out my newest purchase - a pair of pink surf shorts (circa 1970) cut to about mid-thigh and, in my opinion, fabulous.
We weren’t at the park for more than twenty minutes before I noticed the stares. Having previously worn the suit to mostly gay spaces or with large groups at my side, I hadn’t thought of it as particularly flashy or obscene. True, it was pink and short for boys trunks but it didn’t come close to the risqué suits I’ve seen on South Florida’s beaches or in Key West. Residents of Central Florida apparently disagreed.
In every line of every ride there were whispers. Men stared with sneers and girls pointed with snickers. Out of frustration, I muttered out loud, “What’s the big deal? It’s a bathing suit!” A good friend Becca replied succinctly, “You’re wearing bright pink shorts. And you’re a dude.”
Later in the afternoon, while waiting in a packed line, my group had hit its stare-threshold. A group of girls directly behind us, Budweisers in hand, wondered out loud why a grown man would wear pink shorts. Becca traded words and my partner Donald traded stares until we resolved to ignore them and wait for our turn in line. The group, now joined by their boyfriends and a second round of beers, only got louder. My one moment of respite came when, to pass the time, our new colleagues began challenging one of their drunker friends to attempt a front flip. Barefoot. On concrete. The wobbly man tried, failed and managed to land on his face without breaking any bones or cracking his skull. He spent the rest of his time in line bleeding from a cracked nose and laughing with his friends about his “fail”.
As we neared the front of the line the boys, like moths to a flame, zeroed in again on my offensive trunks. We communicated with slide attendants that we were feeling intimidated by this group and asked that we be allowed to go up first in order to put some distance between us and them. I guess this was just provoking enough. The group's ringleader looked straight at me, pointed his finger and screamed, “I’m going to kick your ass faggot!” before lunging forward in an attempt to jump the rope separating him from the stairs. His girlfriends held him back while he yelled more epithets at my group and me.
Park attendee’s had the forethought to hold the line longer than usual, letting our would-be attackers up as we rode down the slide. They did not think, however, to remove them from the park. Dead set on correcting this error in judgment we hurried down the slide, scoped out the landing for our would-be attackers and rushed to the park’s administrative office. Security for the park was quick to act and, thanks to some courageous hunting by Becca, found the drunken group near the center of the park.
As a species, we’re programmed to have a number of psychological and physical reactions to the act of being threatened. Heart rates increase, eyes dilate and your body prepares for quick and decisive action. For some, like Becca and Donald, the experience connects you to the fight or flight instincts that kept our ancestors from going the way of the dinosaur. For others, like myself, we experience a dissonance between the physical manifestations of our fear and our higher consciousness’s inability to except the circumstances we’ve been given. People don’t really get attacked because they’re wearing pink shorts. Do they?
If I had any lingering questions about our would-be attackers intentions, they were summarily answered when security approached our new “friends”. A physical altercation escalated and one of their group, the one whose face was still bleeding from the ill-informed gymnastics, was physically removed, against his will, from the park.
It was a quiet ride back home. The group I was with began to process the experience in different ways. Shannon and her fiancé Justin congratulated us on getting our money back and forcing Security to walk us to our car (the group was reportedly lingering in the parking lot). Donald recalled the time he was jumped as a child by a group much like this one. I was the most quiet.
My cerebral dissonance continued through the night. First, I questioned my perceptions. Had I really seen the man lunge forward or were my eyes playing tricks on me? Had I imagined a simple yell into real danger? The park Security’s encounter told me that this was unlikely. This group was capable of violence and willing to use it on forces more intimidating than me. I questioned the circumstances that made the day escalate. Should Becca have known better than to pick a fight with the girls in line? Did Becca and Donald provoke a stronger reaction by participating in the stare wars or muttering under their breaths? I still believe that standing up for your self is important and couldn’t make that argument reasonable. Finally, I questioned myself. Should I have known better than to wear such a “gay” bathing suit to such a mainstream space? Here…I’ve gotten stuck.
Donald’s asked me not to wear the suit again unless we’re going to an overtly gay place. Every fiber of my activist being tells me to deny this request. To tell him that I am who I am. Then I remember the man’s face as he pointed, yelled, and rushed that rope. I remember how quickly I looked around for a tool or object to defend myself with or for a quick exit off the tall winding staircase.
As I write this, I realize that my dissonance has evolved. No longer is it a disconnected emotional experience that puts my biological instincts in conflict with my ideas about which spaces are safe. It’s now become a disconnect between what I want the world I live in to be and what it is. Do I really live in a world where a color and an inch or two of fabric are so challenging to the idea’s of “masculine” or “normal” as to invoke violence? Must my safety supercede justice or authenticity?
A good friend reminds me that many in the LGBT community don’t have the luxury of these questions. I have the privilege of folding my hot pink shorts up, placing them on the top shelf of my closet and coming back to my conundrum on my next beach day. For many in our community their difference is not so easily stowed away.
Already I can feel the fear from this weekend settling and dulling. Today will become tomorrow and this week will become next. I’ll return to my electoral obsessions and my fundraising plans - swapping the details of this weekend with a collection of images and emotional memories. Eventually it’ll grow into the anger and frustration that drives me as an activist. It’ll sit in a place I rarely let myself visit and remind me of why we have to change the world. Maybe someday it’ll even be funny. Until then I’ll stow it away, like those shorts in my closet, and focus on what I know.
I know that I love who I am and I celebrate those who risk well being to be authentic. I know that there were people in that line that thought what was happening was wrong and wanted to say something, even if they didn’t. I know that Donald and Becca acted with intelligence and courage when I couldn’t and I know they would do it again.
I know that when things are wrong the only thing you can do is fight like hell to fix them. I know that’s what I’ll do. I know someday I’m going to put those pink shorts back on…even if it’s not at a water park.
Joe Saunders is Equality Florida's State Field Director. He lives in Orlando with Donald his partner of five years.