It started innocently enough at an Olive Garden in Ohio.
“Would you and your wife like to start with something to drink?” the waitress asked casually.
“I’ll have a club soda and she’ll have a diet coke,” I found myself replying.
I was sitting across the table from my good friend Megan. Of course the server thought we were married. We’re roughly the same age, and we were both wearing wedding bands. Megan is like a beautiful, funny, younger Jessica Lange. Anyone would be thrilled to be married to her. But then again, my husband, Saul, is pretty awesome, too.
Saul and I had recently decided to relocate from New Jersey to Palm Springs. After traveling to California in February for what was supposed to be a two-month visit, we quickly fell for the community of gay men we discovered there after living in a wonderful but mostly straight small town in Jersey.
It took coordinated effort to move two cats, a dog and the two of us 2,600 miles to a new home. After Saul packed up the house and flew the animals west, I volunteered to drive a van with our most cherished possessions across the country with one of my best friends.
My sibling-like bond with Megan was formed through many years of long, grueling days in television production before both of us got married and changed jobs. We’ve seen much less of each other in the last decade, but we knew we would easily fall back into our familiar friendship groove once we hit the road. But now, our relationship was taking a turn I didn’t expect.
When the waitress returned and placed our unlimited breadsticks on the table, I refrained from complimenting her fabulous multicolored fake nails.
“I didn’t want her to think I’m some creepy husband flirting in front of his wife,” I explained to Megan a moment later.
“It’s more likely she would have wondered why I was married to a gay man,” she replied dryly.
Our ruse continued through Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. I started calling Megan “honey” in front of others and quickly grabbed the check at the end of each meal. I was determined to be the breadwinner in this fantasy hetero marriage.
I almost blew our cover at a gas station outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, when a ruggedly handsome cowboy sauntered up to me at the pump.
“Are you looking for diesel?” he asked in a sexy, whiskey-rasped voice.
“It depends. Is your name Diesel?” I almost replied.
But it wasn’t all fun. At a Taco Bell in Texas, we stood in line behind two rough-looking, solidly built women who looked like they didn’t bother to get out of their pajamas anymore. They had wild bedhead and wore dark makeup over their angry eyes.
“I can’t understand a word anybody says in them damn masks!” one of them complained loudly, glaring at Megan and me. We were the only ones wearing the offending objects.
I had gotten used to the threats that come with being different, but I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I shifted a little closer to my faux wife.
When Megan stepped up to the counter and asked about Taco Bell’s gluten-free options, I went into high alert. I was convinced the women would start taunting us, but to my surprise, they left us alone. I’m not sure that would have been the case if Saul were at my side wearing one of his “I Love My Cats” T-shirts. Avoiding wheat was obviously less offensive than being in love with someone of the same gender.
By the time we got to New Mexico and sat in a tiny diner, happily making small talk with other male-female couples, my transformation was complete. I felt like Eddie Murphy in that classic “Saturday Night Live” skit in which he goes undercover to find out how white people really act when no Black people are around.
Was it wrong that I was getting a thrill out of being thought of as “normal” after a lifetime of internalizing messages that gay wasn’t as good as straight and being made to feel like my queerness was, at best, a little weird, and often something much, much more terrible?
I still look for a slight reaction from a cashier when I tell them my grocery discount card is under my husband’s name. And I often think back to the day after my sister died, when an old friend called to tell me she was sorry for my heartbreaking loss before cheerfully adding, “Oh, and I want you to know I’m OK with you being gay!”
I’ve celebrated decades of Pride Months being “here and queer,” and I’ve participated in countless marches. I’ve stood up to homophobia at work, with my family, and in constant daily interactions ever since I came out at the age of 18.
Sometimes being proud is exhausting.
But now I realize it’s actually a luxury that I can “pass” as straight. That isn’t the case for everyone, and those people are often in danger everywhere they go. Being at risk starts early. LBGTQ youth are often targeted and bullied in grade and high school when they are at their most vulnerable. In fact, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are almost five times more likely to have attempted suicide than heterosexual youth. A survey of trans and nonbinary youth conducted by the Trevor Project found that 60% had considered suicide in the last 12 months.
“I realize it's actually a luxury that I can 'pass' as straight. That isn’t the case for everyone, and those people are often in danger everywhere they go.”
What’s more, there are still so many forces at work trying to limit or roll back the rights of queer people ― especially those who identify as trans. State legislatures are continuing to advance bills targeting transgender and nonbinary people, including criminalizing health care for transgender youth, barring access to the use of appropriate restrooms, restricting their ability to fully participate in school sports, allowing religiously motivated discrimination and making it more difficult to get ID documents with their correct name and gender. And just this month, the Supreme Court sided with a Catholic adoption agency that refuses to work with LGBT couples.
These sobering facts make me realize how important it is that we don’t stop fighting. Sometimes that fight involves protesting, voting and speaking up and out about our identities. Sometimes fighting means coming out ― to the grocery cashier, the macho mechanic or the stranger sitting next to us on the plane ― because refusing to “pass” as straight and telling people who we are can be a radical act. It can change someone’s mind about who is queer and what it means to be queer, and that can have incredibly profound consequences. And because not everyone lives in a place or has a life where they’ll be safe if they do come out, it feels that much more important for people like me to do it if and when and as often as we can.
Many people have fought for generations for my right to say the words, “This is my husband, Saul,” and the fight continues. As Megan and I settle back into our own married lives with our respective spouses, one of the most powerful things I can still do is stay visible. So as much as I enjoyed my time in hetero land, it’s time to get back to work.
Keith Hoffman is finishing his memoir, “The Summer My Sister Grew Sideburns.” He has written for television shows such as “The Secret World of Alex Mack,” “Sister Sister” and the popular Nickelodeon cartoon “Doug.” He was a producer for the GLAAD Award winning series “30 Days,” and currently serves as executive producer for Animal Planet/Discovery, where he produced 10 seasons of “Finding Bigfoot.” His essays have appeared in HuffPost, New York Daily News and Grub Street Literary Journal. You can read his blog at TheRavenLunatic.com and find him on Instagram at @Keefhoffman and on Twitter at @khravenlunatic.