When I was in fifth grade (the same age as my son is now), I had an argument with another boy in the class, a boy that I had been sort of friends with for a little while. At a certain point, his eyes narrowed, and he spat, “You dumb Jew!”
I was glad that my mom called his mom that night, and that his mom apologized to us, and got him to apologize to me. It was an inappropriate thing to say, and it needed to be dealt with promptly. But I wasn’t hurt.
I knew that some of the smartest people in the world were Jewish, and I knew that I was one of the smartest kids in the class. I was even mature enough at that point to know that the people who might be called “dumb” still deserved respect.
I also knew that my other classmates didn’t care that I was Jewish. They might have resented me because I got better grades than them, because I was a city kid, or because I didn’t make any effort not to cry. Or they might have quite legitimately resented me because I was a smart-aleck know-it-all. But even though they were all Catholics and Methodists and Dutch Reform and Jehovah’s Witnesses, it just wasn’t a big deal being Jewish.
So this boy combined a lie that wouldn’t have hurt me if it had been true (“dumb”) with a fact that I wasn’t at all ashamed of (“Jew”). How could this hurt me? I was hurt by the fact that this boy hated me so much he reached for what he thought would be the most hurtful thing he could say. I was hurt a few weeks later when he succeeded in convincing a mutual friend to reject me, through some combination of lies and bribery. But I wasn’t hurt by his words. They didn’t make any sense.
That’s the way I feel about Friday’s cartoon by Sean Delonas in the New York Post. The cartoon refers to the fact, recently discovered by the local political press, that Chirlane McCray used to identify as a lesbian and had sexual relationships with women, which she publicly proclaimed on the cover of Essence magazine in 1979. This is news because McCray has been married to a man, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, since 1994, and they have two teenage sons.
Delonas’s cartoon shows McCray and de Blasio in bed smoking cigarettes, the conventional signal that they have just had sex. McCray, with a big smile on her face, is on the telephone telling someone, “I used to be a lesbian, but my husband, Bill de Blasio, won me over.” The bearded de Blasio is wearing a padded bra, panties, stockings, a garter belt and high heeled shoes over his hairy male body, and looks annoyed with the situation.
My reaction to Delonas’s cartoon was the same one that I had to this kid calling me a “dumb Jew” in fifth grade. Delonas starts with an obvious truth, that McCray once said she was a lesbian and had lesbian relationships, but which nobody should be ashamed of. He then adds a speculation that may or may not be true: that de Blasio cross-dresses when having sex with his wife. It’s probably not true, but if it is, it’s also nothing to be ashamed of.
It’s clear that Delonas is a nasty man who thinks that cross-dressing and being a lesbian are both things to be ashamed of. This is obvious in the cartoon, in the cartoon that he published today, and in his previous body of work. It’s also clear that he sees de Blasio as a political enemy and wants to hurt him. What’s not clear is why de Blasio should be hurt by this. It’s either a lie mixed with an obvious truth, or two truths together, none of which are anything to be ashamed of.
De Blasio is clearly hurt by the cartoon. At a rally Saturday, he announced “I’m offended they denigrated a woman who is a role model by any measure.”
A number of politicians, including potential rivals for the Democratic nomination for Mayor next year, were there to defend de Blasio. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said that the cartoon was “the worst” thing in the coverage of McCray’s past. Former Comptroller and failed mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, who identified himself as a personal friend of de Blasio and McCray, said, “The first thing you think about is, my God, how could they do this to a family? How could they do this to their children? How could they do this? … While you won’t get an apology from the Post, on behalf of good people from New York, I’m sorry you have been dragged into this mud by this newspaper.”
Delonas clearly meant this as an attack, and I understand the impulse to defend yourself and your friends. But here’s the key: it’s only a successful attack if you believe that cross-dressing in the bedroom is something to be ashamed of. If there’s nothing wrong with a guy wearing a garter belt in bed, then it’s not denigrating anyone, it’s not doing anything to a family, and it’s not dragging anyone into the mud. When there is no shame, there is no mud.
What is worse, by being outraged, de Blasio and his friends have created the mud. If it is “the worst” thing to accuse someone of cross-dressing, what does that say about me and all the other cross-dressers in New York City? How many guys are going to feel a tinge of shame the next time they reach for their nylons?
I’ll tell you one thing: I doubt that de Blasio cross-dresses, but if he does, the most powerful thing he could do for New York City in his lifetime would be to come out of the closet and then run for Mayor. It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch, since Rudy Giuliani has already appeared onstage in nylons and heels. Even if he lost, he would accomplish more by being strong and running without shame than by anything he could do if he stayed in the closet and got elected. I think that Quinn and any other out gay politician in the city would agree with me.
Assuming that de Blasio doesn’t cross-dress, it would be a huge gesture to us if he and Bill Thompson could simply make a statement saying that cross-dressing is nothing to be ashamed of. All I want is seven words: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”