Now don’t get me wrong. New Orleans is filled with gay people – several of them, thank goodness, friends of mine. And the Quarter can be pretty…gay. Actually a lot of the time it is. But this does not compare to the sheer gay bliss of being in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts on a busy evening. It is just. So. Gay. And it’s not just a party scene and it doesn’t mean a special festival is happening that week that’s operating as a big Queer Magnet to everyone in the region. It means that people can be who they are, in public, all of the time, and they can even get married if that’s what they want to do. Being in downtown Northampton on a busy evening is one of the great pleasures of my life. And as much as I love New Orleans, and as much as New Orleans is a wonderful blue dot in a red state, there are moments when I realize how visiting Northampton can feel like a great sigh of relief for many people. And I appreciate that now, more than I ever did growing up there.
I want to mention one experience I had in particular that typified to me the social liberalism of Western Mass as compared to New Orleans.
I have previously mentioned my adventures in registering my car in Massachusetts. Not long after I left New Orleans, at one of the many occasions in which I waited for hours at the Massachusetts RMV (housed in a re-purposed brick factory building, natch), I witnessed something that made me a little verklempt with pride for Western Mass.
The RMV waiting area was crowded that day, with lots of people listlessly lounging around on benches and sitting on the floor, many clutching their tickets and gazing up at the little screen mentally urging the numbers to count down faster.
Since this was a former factory building, the waiting area was actually a very broad hallway dotted with pillars, and one woman’s two children – a boy and a girl – were making good use of the space, running around at top speed and careening into each other. They looked to be twins, about four or five. The boy wore khakis and a blue and green striped shirt, and the girl wore a pink skirt with pink hearts, white pants underneath, pink sneakers, a pink hoodie, and a pink barrette.
Eventually they got tired of running around and started hanging out with their mother, or walking around the space interacting with various people waiting. At about this time I realized my mistake. From afar I had made several conclusions about the children’s respective genders based on their stereotypical dress, but closer up it was obvious that the child in pink clothing was a biological boy. This child was making the rounds, approaching people to show them something. Eventually I overheard the mother, genially talking with someone else in the room, “Oh, sorry, hope he’s not bothering you. He’s just so excited to show off the hearts on his pants.” Sure enough, the pink hearts on the pants were being proudly shown to everyone within reach.
And here’s what was so remarkable. No one even blinked. No one appeared to mutter, or make comments, or refrain from having a pleasant interaction with the family. Everyone told the boy how much they loved the hearts on his pants, and he went happily off in search of his next audience. The people waiting at the RMV were not a crowd of academic elites or genderqueer activists. From appearances alone, they seemed to be a diverse group of people from many different socio-economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. And as I sat there I realized that I could not even imagine a child exhibiting such a nontraditional gender role in public in New Orleans.
I want to be clear: I do not think this child is necessarily transgender, or gay. Maybe they will be, maybe not, maybe they’ll reject all cumbersome labels and be whoever the eff they want to be in whatever clothing of gender performativity they want to do it in. Good for them. And good for that child’s mother, for being simultaneously so encouraging and supportive, and so utterly nonchalant about it.
And I do think this child’s life will still be hard. I do not think it will be a walk in the park. But I also think that life in Western Mass, in that community and with that mother, will make growing up just a little bit easier. And that can make all the difference.