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Makeup as My Superhero Mask: Being Outwardly Queer

By David T. Valentin

On the way home from the 35th Lammy’s Awards, I was riding off a high. I had volunteered for this Lammy’s award ceremony, the first one they were having in person since 2019. Held in the Edison Ballroom, a statement of elegance and early 1920s art deco, Lambda Literary spared no expense. And in a way, such a grand award ceremony, the first in-person award ceremony in four years, it was a statement piece of LGBTQ+ solidarity and celebration.

If there’s one thing the LGBTQ+ population knows how to do, it’s throw a part. That’s exactly what Lambda Literary did this year. I had the chance to volunteer to help out with registration and what not.

I’m normally an introvert when it comes to volunteering at these sorts of things—I mostly keep to myself and do what I’m told. But with a face beat to the gods, a thrifted spring duster jacket that fit right in and a yearning to connect to my LGBTQ+ family after so long, I immediately felt comfortable and safe.

I was talking up a storm. Complimented everybody on their hair, their nails, their outfits, just how confidently they carried themselves. Whatever it was, I found the opportunity to compliment them. And why not? The LGBTQ+ community deserves a celebration and any small gestures that say, “I see you,” in the best of ways.

Halfway through the award ceremony, I decided I’d go home. I had to hike across from West Manhattan to East Manhattan to catch the SIM1C back to Staten Island – a place a little bit blander than the safe haven of the sense of community I felt within the walls of the Edison Ballroom packed wall-to-wall with other queer people like me.

I wanted to stay. To share more conversations. To hear inspiring acceptance speeches, however brave, simple or adorably awkward they might be. But it’s a hike to get back home from Manhattan to Staten Island. Even at 8:30 PM, I wouldn’t be home on the south shore until close to 10:45 PM.

I also thought it would be safer. With heavy, playful, exaggerated eye shadow and a healthy amount of blush, I knew that in this political climate that I’d be somewhat of a target. People have grown bolder than they were even four years ago, and I wasn’t about to test what I could get away with given the everyday horror stories faced by the LGBTQ+ community; stories that only increase in frequency by the day as conservatives continue on their ignorant crusade against the LGBTQ+ community.

I thought, once I get on the bus, I’d be fine. I’ll be on my way home, and I’d take that all the way to the transit center where my car awaited me. And I could go home, strip my makeup off, climb in my bed and sleep on the queer high I was feeling.

The ride was fine. At least the first half was. I kept to myself, listening to my music and texting my friends all while incredibly giddy at the confidence I had to wear my makeup so proudly. It is a recent development for me, one that I think I’ve become quite good at. I’ve always been a bit of a natural when it comes to painting and makeup isn’t much different.

It was when we were crossing the Verrazano Bridge that the bus driver turned the lights on to the express bus, something the bus drivers do often to wake up any sleepy travelers so that they don’t miss their stops, that there was a problem.

When the lights came on, I flinched a bit (being pretty tired and all and with my eyes adjusted to the dark). I made eye contact with the man sitting in the next seat over. A scrawny middle-aged man, with a worn face and beady eyes. I had thought for a moment he was looking at me because I was so shocked at the light, and for a moment I even politely smiled thinking he was in on the joke.

The man just stared at me, so I turned my attention back to my phone and paid it no mind. From the corner of my eyes, I could see him catching glances at me, staring at me even perhaps when he thought I wasn’t looking. I was because I could feel his gaze lingering. Then he began to mumble as he kept his eyes on me.

Weirded out by his lingering stares, I turned my music off, but I kept my headphones in. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he had my attention. With a tall boy of beer between his lap, he clasped his hands together and looked at the roof of the bus as if he were praying.

I caught snippets of what he was saying—something about God help us, that he’s uncomfortable, that this world is fucked. After his incredibly thoughtful prayer about me, he decided to stare at me, saying that he was going to make me just as uncomfortable as I made him.

As it became evident he had a problem with a little paint on my face and that we were about to be alone in the back of the bus, just the two of us, I barely gave him a second look when I took my charger out from the USB port and made my way to the front of the bus.

I took my seat behind the bus driver, where there were also more people. As I stood, the man said to me, “Those are some big feet, Ma’am.” Mind you, as someone who is 5’11” and only a nine-foot shoe size, I don’t particularly have a big foot as a man. I would actually have an average shoe size if I were a woman which is pretty funny in hindsight, but I digress.

Despite me seeking safety behind the bus driver, the man had the audacity to make his way to the front of the bus for his stop a little earlier than necessary and decided he would wait for his stop staring at me, while telling the bus driver how uncomfortable he was. How, “someone sitting in the back of the bus” was making him uncomfortable. How glad he was that his son wasn’t with him, or else he would have to find a way to “explain this shit.”

Never mind that he didn’t feel the need to explain to his son why he was verbally harassing someone on the bus. Never mind that a little face paint made him so viscerally angry that he felt the need to profess it so loudly, killing the mood of the two women sitting at the front of the bus who were having a kind, personal conversation after a good night out. Never mind that me, a stranger, never exchanged a single word with him the entire exchange.

Shaken by the experience, I asked my dad to meet me at the transit center and he escorted me home as he drove behind me. In the moment, I wasn’t even scared. Just confused. Disturbed, even, and after the man left I was filled with so much rage that I exhaled loudly; so loudly in fact the two women gave me somewhat of a sympathetic look.

And after I got home? I was tired. And then a day or two later when I was in therapy and I brought it up to my therapist and he asked me how I felt, I said to him, “In all honesty, I felt pity and sadness for the guy.”

I asked him how miserable does someone’s life have to be that they felt the need to ruin their own night by getting mad at some face paint on someone minding their business on the bus listening to music?

Now, this isn’t going to be some, “I prayed for him and hope he finds his true self” type bullshit. Fuck the guy, through and through. But in a way, I mourned his son. I mourned him for all the versions of himself he couldn’t become because of his father. I mourned his son because he probably wouldn’t know what it ever feels like to have a loving father. I mourned his son because I fear the day his son asks to simply have his face painted at a carnival, or a block party and he gets made fun by his own father and the light in his eyes slowly dims until the joy is gone.

They say they’re trying to protect children, but how many children die with every little mean, bigoted comment they make, never truly knowing who their child might become? From womb to tomb, nailing the coffin and setting the limitations of their children’s world before they even have the chance to find the words to describe what it means to be alive for them. For their own dreams. For their own hopes. For their own goals.

It’s much more hurtful than playing with dolls or action figures. Much more hurtful than playing sports or performing in theatre. Much more hurtful than a little paint on the nails and face. It’s much more hurtful passing hate and hurt from parent to child, making that box—that world—much smaller bit by bit before children can even go out and experience it for all the world has to offer.

I believe, quite firmly, that being yourself in public, your true self, gives others permission to be themselves. That by bringing in a little light in each space that I share with others helped someone breathe just a little easier.

So, yes, the confrontation shook me. It scared me a little, in the moment of course. But I did not think for a second to give pieces of myself to that man as he walked off the bus. I did not think for a second to dim my own light. I let him go with his rage, and in his leave no matter how hard he tried to chip away at me, I stood whole and strong and proud.

As of lately, I’ve made it a point to openly express my queerness, first by dyeing my hair blue. Now, I know that doesn’t mean automatically, “Hey, I’m gay!” but it certainly sets me apart from the rest of the bunch. Pair that with makeup and a pretty fruity wardrobe, and you got yourself a pretty openly queer person.

For me, make up is a mask. Not exactly a mask to hide, like toning your personality down or making sure you go unnoticed in a crowded room. Make up is more so a superhero mask—a projection of how I see myself. Strong, confident and brave.

When you spend so much time dimming your light, you want to shine. You want to share that light with others because you know you have so much to give.

I’ve done my time hiding. I’ve done my time in the closet. I’ve done my time shrinking myself because I thought I was wrong, or it wasn’t my place to stick up for myself or that I was worried others would judge me for being “too much.”

All that really meant was that I was afraid people would not like a confident me, a me that stands up for myself and what I think is right and wrong. A me that goes against the grain because I know in my heart, I’m doing all the right things.

And if my being happy intimidates some and inspires others? Then I say fuck the bigots.


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