Writer Will Richardson remembers a recent Halloween adventure, more frightening for his and his husband’s journey into MAGA territory than any spooky costumes at hand.
“Is the fanny pack too much?” Katie asks as she pushes her oversized blazer aside to position the black and neon pack around her waist.
“Can a fanny pack ever be too much?” I counter. I rifle through the open Amazon box of ’80s nostalgia accessories. “Oh, jelly bracelets! I remember those!” I exclaim. I look for pansexual pride colors—yellow, cyan, and bright pink—but settle on trans pride—white, pale pink, and baby blue—and slip them on my wrist.
“Yes, or no?” Steve has on a pair of neon orange and green sunglasses.
“Ha! Those are amazing.” I answer.
“Max Headroom!” someone offers. Christian rushes past me to check his hairdo in the mirror, then returns to the kitchen, elated.
“Flock of Seagulls!” I declare.
“Yes! Exactly!” Christian says gratefully. “See—he remembers!” pointing me out to Katie, his wife. We take turns saying what year we graduated from high school; Christian’s the oldest (1994), I’m second (1997). My husband, Josh, is the baby (2004).
The other couples had the foresight to order costume kits online; Josh and I threw together costumes from our wardrobes. Josh’s preppy guy in his vintage letterman sweater and white high-top sneakers is an excellent foil to my rebellious kid from The Breakfast Club. White long-sleeved T under red-and-black plaid flannel with the sleeves roughly cut off, dark jeans with the cuffs shoved into the top of clunky, black leather, lace-up boots. He is the “criminal,” the one who makes out with the popular, uptight girl and walks away triumphantly across the football field in the iconic final scene. The movie ends with his voice reading the essay the self-named Breakfast Club wrote for the teacher who supervised detention, “You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”
“What’s the fundraiser for again, exactly?” Josh asks the group.
“Arts council,” Katie answers. “For here in Queen Anne’s County.”
Katie and Christian asked us last week if we wanted to join them for a 1980s themed fundraiser on Kent Island, along with another couple, Steve and Melissa. I love a good theme party and any chance to dress up in a silly costume. And we love these friends and don’t see them enough, so we agreed.
The day of the party, Josh brings up the obvious; this is going to be a very straight, white event. I am often oblivious to the obvious, but realize he is right. We will be in MAGA country. Fuck.
“Well, if we’re gonna get hated-crimed, bring it on,” he says. I mime my new yellow belt kung fu moves, tight fists up near my face, then two quick jabs.
“Bring it on,” I repeat.
I’ve never been in a fight.
Before the group piles into two cars, I slip on a pride bracelet. It matches ones we gave to our groomsmates at our wedding rehearsal dinner four months ago. As we drive into the parking lot, Katie glances inside the hall.
“No one else is dressed up!” she laments. The six of us gather in the lot and they start to fuss about overdoing their costumes.
“Hey,” I declare, “we look fabulous. We look awesome and feel awesome. That’s all that matters.” (I am trying to convince myself.)
“Just own it. We are the party,” Josh adds.
As we walk into the volunteer fire department’s event hall, one glance tells me Josh’s earlier assessment was right. Deflated and wary, I wonder how out I am willing to be here. I slip my pride bracelet off and shove it into my jeans pocket. I leave the trans-pride jelly bracelets. No one here knows what that means anyway. Josh is uncomfortable, anxious, questioning our decision to come. I glance around for any indication we aren’t the only ones. I relax a little at seeing a 50-something woman dressed ridiculously in a rainbow toile skirt and pigtails tied up with neon scrunchies.
“You look amazing,” I say and wave my hand to indicate her outfit. She beams and points out her adult daughter in a DIY Garbage Pail Kids costume.
“You remember Garbage Pail Kids?” she asks me cheerfully.
“Oh, yeah,” I assure her. I remember those subversive collectible cards. Scrunchie Mom understands being different. She understands choosing to be herself, whatever the popular girls say.
On the way to the appetizer table, I relax a little and pull my pride bracelet back out of my pocket. I slip it onto my right wrist, next to the jelly bracelets. They will be my talisman, my amulet of protection.
I down a couple small pours of local beer, then Josh brings me a shot of whiskey to wash down the appetizers. He and I entertain each other with our favorite people-watching game. I nod my head toward a couple. He’s wearing jams, and she’s looking fantastic in a bright French cut leotard, exercise tights, and leg warmers.
“He feels inadequate in bed, so makes up for it by paying for all his wife’s plastic surgery.”
Josh nods to an octogenarian behind me. “Grandma is secretly kinky. She has a sex dungeon in her basement.”
“They sleep in separate bedrooms,” I decide about a couple two tables away.
“Think we have more sex than anyone here?” Josh asks.
“Oh, for sure. Easily.”
We smile at each other and relax a bit more.
The lead singer invites people to come up and dance and passes out rainbow-lighted foam batons. I accept one from a tablemate and weave through the tables to the tiny dance space in front of the band.
“Cel-ebrate good times, come on!” the singer belts as I jump up and down in a small group of women. I’m not drunk enough for this. When the song ends, I head back to the assigned table. The singer invites “only women whose men really, truly love them” to dance to a slow love song. “Come on, guys! Bring your lady up to show her you really love her.”
“Which one of us is the woman?” I loudly ask Josh. He smiles. I kiss his cheek. We stay seated. I think back to our first dance at the wedding, when I pretended to be confused about which one of us would lead, before we both broke into a hip-hop routine my friend choreographed for us. What’s a man gotta do?
After sipping another drink, Josh declares he needs to pee.
“Me, too,” I offer.
Going to the restroom together isn’t usually a guy thing, but it’s safer this way. We work our way past the silent auction baskets, and I point out the ones advertised as men’s (cigars, bourbon, camouflage) and women’s (soaps, wine, pastels). I know Josh understands my silent commentary about how needlessly gendered everything is.
“No gender-neutral bathroom. I checked earlier,” Josh informs me.
As we enter the men’s room, I subtly scan the situation and am relieved that we have it to ourselves. Josh conducts his own assessment with military precision and speed. Muscle memory. We pass the empty urinals and head to the two stalls. Keeping one ear out for the swing of the door and footsteps, I chat with Josh through the stall wall. I quickly learned that this normal women’s room behavior is a men’s room faux pas. Where women make eye contact, smile, make friendly chitchat with strangers, men staunchly avoid all of it. Keep your head down, do your business, get out. (Josh and I still like to chat, and when it’s the two of us, we can.) Once I realized my changing appearance frightened women, I switched to the men’s, where no one looks closely anyway.
We rejoin our group and head outside for fresh air and bourbon. We chat contentedly as we sip from our plastic cups and the band finishes their first set. Now happily drunk, I hear Whitney’s voice from the speakers. She just wants to dance with somebody, and I heed her siren call, dragging Josh inside with me. I jump and slide and thrust my hip sharply left to feel the heat with somebody. I call the lyrics into the air with my T-buzzed voice slightly off tune; the dance floor is the only place I sing.
A woman maybe 10 years my senior comes to dance with me. We smile and sway our hips to the beat. I know she reads me as safe. Her husband could be sitting two yards away and not feel threatened by me. I smile and dance to make her feel sexy, to feel young again, to feel free in her little black dress. I don’t count as a man. Not that kind of man.
If only she knew.
As Josh and I dance to the band’s second set, I notice the unfriendly glance from the dude dressed in a Miami Vice suit and gold chain necklace. I notice the uncomfortable, downcast face of the bass guitar player three feet away. He can’t even look at us. I dance harder. Josh matches my energy. I drape my arms around his shoulders, and we smile joyfully at each other. He takes off his sweater to dance in his T-shirt. Have you seen Josh’s biceps? Let Miami Vice try.
A couple women I hadn’t noticed before dance near the front with us. “I’m glad someone here can actually dance!” the taller one yells over the music. I laugh and pump my feet to the beat as a “thank you.” She rewards me with a “Yeeeesssss!” I bop a balloon into the air for the crowd to bounce around like a beach ball.
The band plays another slow song, and I pull Josh in. I lead, my right hand on his back, my left holding his. I whisper in his ear and kiss his cheek. Over his shoulder, I see a seated, gray-haired gentleman smile contentedly in our direction.
As the night winds down, the emcee calls, “Katie and Christian, Melissa and Steve, come to the front!” They’ve won the costume contest and join us up front to victoriously claim their gift bags, then head off to examine any silent auction wins. As I leave the dance floor, a smiling older woman stops me and gestures for a hug; I apologize for my sweatiness while she thanks me for being there and supporting the arts. “Really, I’m so glad you’re here,” she beams. I know she means “guys like you” and I feel her welcoming in my bones.
Josh and I head to the parking lot to cool down. I’m so sweaty from dancing that I take off my cut-off flannel shirt and long-sleeved white T and drop them carelessly to the asphalt. Josh fusses at me for being shirtless and I love him for it but am not about to put a sweat-soaked shirt back on. My chest hair mostly hides my scars anyway.
“Aren’t you cold?” the woman who complimented my dancing calls to us across the small lot.
“Do you guys need a ride?” her friend asks.
“Nah, I’m always too hot.” And use any excuse to be shirtless now that I can.
“We’re good, thanks,” Josh answers guardedly. “We’re just waiting for our friends.” The women approach, not exactly sober themselves.
“I just have to say,” one begins. “It’s so great to see you two here tonight. Where do you live?”
“Glen Burnie,” I answer.
“Oh! That’s gotta be worse than here!”
“Well, we have been hate-crimed,” I say flippantly at the same time Josh deflects, “It’s not so bad.”
“Listen,” the taller woman continues breathlessly. “My son came out when he was 11, and we live here, and I was so scared for him, but he’s 17 now and doing great and he hasn’t been bullied at school and we are so lucky. Are you on Facebook? Can we be friends? Do you want to come to Thanksgiving with us? I’m serious. Come have Thanksgiving with us.”
“It’s just so great to see a couple like you,” her friend beams as Josh puts his name into her phone.
Josh and I exchange a knowing smile.
Our daily survival demands no missteps as we dance out and in, in and out of the closet, silently calculating our chances. In the right spaces, our spaces, we reveal our white-pink-and-blue selves. Tonight, though, we read as two boys in love—fully true, if not the full truth.
Will Richardson (he/they) is an LGBTQ health researcher and activist; dad; and queer, transgender man. He has been published in Welter Online. He lives near Baltimore with his husband, and keeps dancing, no matter who is watching.