The game was over, and fans were leaving Fenway. To get to the T, I had to pass several street entrepreneurs selling T-shirts for 10 bucks apiece. It was the summer of 2006, when Brokeback Mountain was both a huge movie and a cause célèbre. One of the T-shirt hawkers had one that said, simply, Brokeback Jeter. When I saw it, I laughed and reached into my pocket for the cash. After all, it was funny. I hated the Yankees (still do), and although I respect Derek Jeter’s skills on the field, since he is the Yankee captain, I hated him, too.
On the train back to where I had parked, I can remember being psyched. I didn’t think too much, if at all, about what the shirt actually said. I just knew that when I wore it, people would laugh, and then I’d feel like I had made a good joke. There was no more to it. Of course, I knew what the message of the T-shirt was. It was not hard to glean. Brokeback Jeter, in rough translation, meant, Jeter is gay. Yes, that’s ridiculous (just ask Mariah Carey), but the fact that the statement was so outlandish and obviously untrue negated any possible offense, right? Anyone who saw the shirt would know that I was just Yankee-bashing, one of our favorite pastimes in New England, so who cares? I would say that that was my line of thinking, but I didn’t really think about it. The shirt was just funny, end of story.
Then I was wearing the shirt at Ruski’s, and playing the jukebox. As I picked songs, someone sitting at the next table turned around to speak to me. He was older, maybe in his late 50s. Something about the way he was dressed and the way he spoke and the other guys he was sitting with told me that he was gay. He looked at me with contempt, and said, “Excuse me, but could I ask you what that T-shirt means?”
In that next moment, as I fumbled for the words to answer him, I experienced an epiphany that told me that I was an asshole. What I said to the man is forgotten, but it was something about how the shirt didn’t really mean anything; that I just hated the Yankees and it was a joke. The gay man questioning me wrinkled his nose, reacting to my mealy-mouthed words as if they had been a fully formed fart. Then he turned away, scoffing, and full of disdain.
That was a terrible moment for me. I am a liberal, tolerant person, and certainly not someone who would disparage homosexuals. And yet, that was exactly what I had done by purchasing and wearing a Brokeback Jeter shirt. Brokeback Mountain, a film that I loved, and that I thought was the saddest movie I had ever seen, was set in Wyoming. Matthew Shepard, the young man who was brutally murdered in 1998 by homophobic thugs who targeted him because of his sexuality, lived and died in Wyoming. It’s all interconnected. Does it mean that by wearing that T-shirt I was endorsing violence against gays? No, I don’t think so, but I did make perpetrating that violence a little bit easier. For that, I was, and I remain, ashamed.
What’s my point? Be better than I was that day outside Fenway. Please, think about the messages you endorse before endorsing them. We can all do that in a very real-world way by remembering this story on Tuesday, and voting No on Question 1.
Rick Wormwood can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.