Story of a Hat
On Valentine’s Day I decided to go for a run. I decided the run would be outside, instead of on the treadmill, and I also decided to wear my brand new hat, dark blue, that I ordered online from the Human Rights Campaign as part of their crusade against Donald Trump, a hat that, in large block yellow lettering, screams Make America Gay Again at anyone who stares it down. I love that hat. When I took it out of its box I immediately slid it atop my head and turned to show it off to my girlfriend. A goofy grin spread wide across my face, I beamed up at her like a toddler in a brand new princess gown. She laughed and told me how adorable I looked before leaning over to kiss me lightly on the cheek.
On the day I decided to wear my new hat on an outdoor run, I entered the elevator to ride the 36 floors down from my apartment and noticed my pulse racing faster than usual. I fixed my gaze on the numbers on the screen in the corner, watched them race from 35 to 34 to 33, a loud, obnoxious beep ringing in my ears with each floor left behind, until I stepped out into the lobby and stared myself in the face in the wall of mirrors directly across from the elevator bank.
There I was, ten pounds lighter than when I began my diet a few months back, my neon green running shoes clashing horridly with my bright blue spandex pants and purple vest, which no longer squeezed tightly at my hips but rather hung loosely off my torso. I looked strong, powerful, athletic. The muscles in my thighs were starting to take shape.
Then there was the hat. The letters were significantly larger than on your typical baseball cap, as if the Human Rights Campaign wanted to make sure that no matter what, passerby would be able to read the message blaring from the wearer’s head. Aside from that first time I tried it on, this was my hat’s first time atop my head. It had sat in my dresser drawer for over a week by then, waiting patiently beside a slew of other hats toward which my hand always gravitated as I got ready for my daily workout.
Whether I am inside or outside, I always work out in a baseball hat. It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny or dark. When I run I produce so much sweat that only the thickness of a baseball hat can absorb the wetness and prevent the salty pearls from sliding down my forehead and into my eyes. Headbands and sweatbands don’t work. Only hats.
That week, I’d worn my pink and green Colorado hat, three different black and blue Nike hats, a Super Bowl hat, and my girlfriend’s DePaul Women’s Basketball Big East Conference Champions hat. My Make America Gay Again hat, however, remained, like I once had, shrouded in darkness, deep in the drawer.
I don’t know what compelled me to finally choose that hat for my Valentine’s Day run, but for whatever reason, it was time. At least, it had been back upstairs in the confines of my bedroom. Now, as I stared at myself in the mirror and noticed just how tall those letters stretched across the hat’s anterior, I wondered whether wearing it had been the wrong decision.
I shrugged, breathed deep, and began fiddling with my headphones as I made my way outside. Off I went down Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive, Meghan Trainor cheering me on through my headphones. Who’s that sexy thing I see over there? That’s me, standin’ in the mirror. One massive cloud spanned the entire sky, sheltering the sun from view. Even Lake Michigan, lapping to my left, looked gray. I trotted toward the lakefront path, one of my favorite perks of living in my new Lakeview neighborhood, where I had lived for only five months. I breathed deep and tried to focus on Meghan’s voice encouraging me to love myself. If I was you I’d wanna be me, too.
45 seconds of running down. I hadn’t yet encountered anyone walking toward me. Thankfully, I’d only run past the backs of several folks moving in the same direction as me. Some were walking their dogs, some had arms of full of groceries, some carried heart balloons and teddy bears from their Valentine’s sweethearts. I thought about the roses and dessert my girlfriend brought me the previous evening, and how she hunted down the low calorie ice cream I loved in my favorite flavor, which my grocery store didn’t carry. I thought about the picture I snapped of her holding the bright pink roses this morning after she trimmed them down. They burst from a yellow and white vase, framing her soft, warm smile. The light streaming in from the kitchen window made her glow.
I snapped out of my daydream and remembered to keep paying attention. All any of the people so far could have seen of me, I assured myself, was my right side followed by my backside moving further and further away from them. So far so good, I thought.
Then, just like that, there were two old women coming toward me. They’d climbed out of the car that had just pulled over to the side of the road. One red-haired lady pushed a walker and the other stepped slowly beside her. They looked up at me for what felt like a little too long as I passed by. Did they see it? I wondered. Did they care? What were they saying now? Oh Ruth, the one with the walker probably scoffed as she fiddled with the button on her mink coat, These gays are ruining our country. Ruth perhaps replied, You’ve got that right. Damn spawn of the devil, every single one of ‘em. Oughta be rounded up and shot if ya ask me.
Increasingly, I was running against the current, confronting more and more faces staring right at me as I passed them by. Was that woman’s laughter directed at me? Might there have been a pocketknife resting in the front left pocket of that boy’s jeans? How about that father holding his daughter’s hand as she skipped beside him? Would he curl his free hand into a fist when he noticed me, thinking it was I who was setting the bad example? The wind gnawed at my cheeks as I began to run faster. The blurrier I became to those around me, I figured, the safer I’d be.
I approached the intersection of North Lake Shore Drive and Belmont Avenue, where, if I crossed a few roads I’d be able to hop on the lake front path, but the traffic light in the direction I had to go was red. I hate waiting for lights while I run, so I decided to keep going forward instead, ditching the lake and skyline views for a run through the neighborhood.
Lakeview, located on the east side of Chicago, is also the home of a small neighborhood-within-a-neighborhood, an enclave called Boystown, where stores, restaurants, and fitness centers display rainbow flags in their windows and a slew of gay bars line the streets. My apartment is located a mere five minute walk from Boystown, so its inhabitants regularly spill over into my area. It is not uncommon to see two men or two women walking hand in hand down my street. When I do, I am showered in an immense feeling of relief.
I of course know that my girlfriend and I are not alone out here, but there is something so alleviating about seeing others like me out in the open, unashamed. Images of homosexual couples in popular culture are still not ubiquitous enough. To me, they still feel incredibly rare and special, and because I am still not used to seeing gay couples portrayed as typical, viable relationships, I can’t help but stare when I see them in real life. I may be in a homosexual relationship, myself, but that doesn’t stop me from gazing in wonder at others who are in them, too. It feels like being hugged. It feels like being told I’m in a safe place.
I try hard not to stare, of course, because I don’t want to make those couples nervous, don’t want to them to fear I’m staring at them in judgment, rather than adoration. When I can’t help myself, though, I hope they can tell by the look in my eyes that I’m staring at them like they are two shimmering diamonds in a world mostly made of stone.
In my blue and yellow Make America Gay Again hat, I ran up and down the streets of one of the most gay-friendly sections of the city, and still, I was afraid. It felt like I’d made a giant poster and hung it around my neck. I’m gay! my hat screamed at anyone who saw it.
And what if the wrong person saw it? What if that man sipping from a Starbucks cup at the corner was the one who was going to grab me by the vest, yank me down hard onto the sidewalk, and kick me in the ribcage until blood oozed onto the concrete and my breath came out in squeaks and wheezes? What if he did that and no one stopped to help me, just crowded around and watched and cheered and egged him on? What if the woman passing out flyers in front of her store shouted fag as I ran by? I cringed as I passed her, positioning myself for the blow.
Two full years after I came out as gay, I went for a run in my Make America Gay Again Hat, and on that run I learned I had not freed myself from all the fear and shame I thought I’d left behind in that closet, dangling from the otherwise empty hangers. It didn’t make any sense. I was out to everyone. I ran a blog on being gay. I went to the pride parades and posted pictures of myself covered in rainbows. I wrote articles about sexuality for the Huffington Post. I wore my Hillary Clinton tank top—the one where the H is rainbow—all the time. Plus, publicly displaying affection for my girlfriend was one of my favorite things. There was something so forbidden about it that made even kissing her on the cheek in a crowded place feel exhilarating, intoxicating.
I thought I was over this.
I thought I was proud.
23 years of shame and confusion was enough.
What about that hat made me feel so afraid?
Not one dangerous or inappropriate thing happened to me on that run. No one stared. No one shouted. No one cared. But that fear. That fear felt as invasive and violating as if someone had physically beaten me.
Now every time I look at that hat it’s all I think about, like I have PTSD from something that never even happened. Only something did. Lots of things did. On October 6th, 1998 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten viciously by two homophobic men who fractured his skull and left him tied to a fence to die, which he did, six days later. On May 11th, 2003, a 15-year-old girl named Sakia Gunn was murdered for turning down two men by telling them she and her friend were lesbians. She was waiting for the bus when one of the men decided to stab her. In 2007, Andrew Anthos, who was gay, disabled, and 72, died after a man shouting gay slurs beat him with a lead pipe. And in 2016, 49 people died after Omar Mateen opened fire inside the Pulse Nightclub, a popular Florida hotspot for gay men and women who love to dance. Those things may not have happened to me, but they did happen to us.
What I want more than anything is to stop being afraid. It’s that fear that makes me feel like they’re winning, the fear those who hate us want more than anything to crawl under our skin and set up camp inside our chests, the fear they think will keep all of us tucked deeply in our closets. I know the best defense is to live loudly, and I’ll keep doing that. I’ll keep wearing my hat. I just wish I didn’t have to be afraid to do it. I don’t know if you can be proud and afraid at the same time. I don’t know if it’s possible to be both confident and anxious, assertive and complacent, but I do know I am going to try.
My hat doesn’t belong in a dark, dusty drawer, and neither do I. I know that. For now I’ll just keep running, I guess, getting as strong as I can so when people come and try to push that drawer shut, I’ll be on the other side, pushing harder.
Molly Sprayregen is an MFA candidate at Northwestern University. She has pieces published or forthcoming in the Huffington Post, the American Book Review, and TriQuarterly. She also a writer for the Windy City Times, Chicago's LGBTQ+ newspaper. She also reads for TriQuarterly.