Sometimes, you are offered the chance to be a different person for a while, to explore parts of yourself you had left unexamined. Have you ever had that opportunity? Perhaps when starting a new job, after moving house, or on vacation, when you don’t know the people around you well and, more importantly, they don’t know you? Just two weeks ago, as I am writing this, I was given that chance.
As the plane banked left and right, tilting its wings up and down, New Orleans comes into view in the small oval windows, scenes of the city alternating with clear expanses of blue water. I am here with the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, to work beside the people of New Orleans in their attempts to rebuild their communities after Katrina. I am also here to be the gayest James I can be, to try on a new identity and see how it fits, if only for a week.
As the week progresses, I let it all out, fulfilling every gay stereotype: every time I see a cute guy, I say so. Every time I want to compliment someone’s clothing, I do. Every time I want to sing a song from a musical, I sing it. I even begin to dress differently, buying a FABulous black shirt with a fleur-de-lis, the insignia of New Orleans, sculpted on the front in metal studs, and wear it out for our nights on the town. Somehow, this feels right. I feel myself coming into focus, like the image in binoculars as you twist the lenses.
On our last day in town, I decide to take a pilgrimage. Clad in my fleur-de-lis shirt, with my iPhone as my guide, I trek to Café Lafitte in Exile, America’s oldest gay bar, towards the end of the famous Bourbon Street. I’m tingling as I walk through the door – I don’t drink, so I’m not much of a one for bars in any case, and this is my first gay bar. I wander up the stairs and out onto the balcony, lean on the railing, and look down the street in the cool night air. A man, wanting to get past me on the narrow balcony, places his hands on my hips, shifts me gently to the side, and says “Excuse me, darlin’.”
Ten years of repression melts in an instant, gone in the soft heat of a southern drawl.
It’s as if I’ve been trying to fit the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle into place, turning it this way and that, twisting and bending it, trying to force it, and now, suddenly, it finds its place where it was meant to be all along. I’m home. Home, at last.