Essay: Visibility

“Nice mask!”

The phrase is delivered in what seems to be a genuine spirit. Which is nice, as I’ve often in the last few weeks heard the phrase delivered in scathing sarcasm and derision. I look at the person saying it today. They’re wearing a mask as well, a Vader Face mask, and they’re wearing a shirt with Darth Maul on it.  I smile, crinkling the eyes hardcore to make sure it’s seen even with my lips blocked, and nod, figuring they’re a Star Wars fan commenting on the Star Wars print mask that my wife sewed up for me. 


I turn to walk away, and then freeze slightly, but keep moving.  The blaze of red seen at the bottom of my vision, pinned between my nose and my glasses, reminds me. I’m not WEARING my Star Wars mask.  I’m wearing the Pride Flag mask that I just got in the mail a couple of days ago.

the author showing his Pride.
Image : Showing my Pride.

It’s a wonderful mask. Three layers, thick, but still very easy to breath through. Metal nose piece to bend and pin. Rainbow ribbon to tie it, and panels of cloth in the Pride Rainbow lining my face. (You should go buy one from my friend and wonderfully talented maker of Things, Vady.

And now I wonder. Was there a hidden sarcasm there? I’ve had several people over the last couple of days smile and nod when they see I’m wearing a mask, only to realize what it means, and scowl and turn away. And I’ve had lots of people who scowl at the mask to begin with, and then get even angrier when they realize its a Pride flag. And that’s those that recognize it. I’m sure there are many who would have copped an attitude if they HAD known what it meant.

It’s visibility. I’m a white, cis, mostly hetereonormative guy. I definitely pass for completely hetereronormative in day to day life. I’m an invisible part of the “normal” as so many people have decided it to be. I’m quite visible as not specifically visible.

And now, wearing a mask, hiding my face, I am… not hiding. I am Visible in a way I have never felt. And part of it is frightening. Not knowing when someone is going to decide to force a confrontation because I dare wave the flag. But part of it is exhilarating. Freeing. “This is me, you can see me in a way you never did. DEAL WITH IT!” I understand a large part of the in your face hair, jewelry, clothing, and tattoos so many of my friends have sported in public.  I LIKE being visible. Not just because of a self centered desire to upset bigots. (Though I would be lying if I said that wasn’t a big thrill.)  No, I like being visible because of those who perhaps aren’t.

For every few people who show some attitude about my Pride flag mask, there’s someone who genuinely, enthusiastically, shouts out, “I LIKE YOUR MASK!” And with several of the people who have said so, there has been a bit of a pattern.  They say it. I say thank you. And they pause. Look me in the eyes. Glance down to my wedding ring, my bland shirt and shorts and scuffed up tennis shoes. And there’s this unasked question. They want to ask so badly, “Do you know what it means? What you’re wearing?”  Because I pass so easily for mayo white, cis het dude, that it seems not too farfetched to think that I’m wearing it because I thought the colors looked nice. Or a relative gave it to me without telling me what it means. And there is a measure of trepidation with it, every time.

You see, I was VISIBLE.  They SAW me. They saw…  a friend. OMG, there’s someone wearing a Pride Flag. Solidarity. Public representation.  And when they think that maybe not…  It’s not fear. But it’s close. And it’s heartbreaking. I LIKE being representation. I LOVE being a visible, physical manifestation of the infamous words of the great Reverend Mord, “You are not alone.”

So I stop.  A dozen times now, I’ve seen that look, and stopped. “My friend in Colorado makes them. They’re name is Vady, with a V. You should Google them.”  It’s like a keyword.  I just referred to a person by obvious non-binary pronouns. The secret handshake and club password of our time, caring about pronouns. Just in case, I continue.  “They do the original Pride flag”, here I wave Vannah White style at my face, “And all the others as well, Bi, Pan, Trans, Ace.”

The smile.  The broad, shining, relieved smile. It gets me every time. And now I understand. I thought I did. I thought I understood the meaning behind the concept of Representation and Visibility.  I thought, as a bi-sexual man who is in a monogamous marriage to a woman, and thus, to so many people, “straight”, that I understood the purpose of Bi-Visibility day.

I didn’t. I couldn’t, not until I was forced to look at what it means to BE “Visible”.

I’m fairly certain I’ve had at least two people THIS close to starting a fight with me because of my mask. I’m a decently bulky guy, obviously have some muscles under the padding. I’ve had enough training in a variety of martial arts, and a lifetime of PTSD induced hypervigilant behavior, to cause my normal posture to appear to many people as “ready to throw hands without a seconds pause”. (Because I am. ‘CONSTANT VIGILANCE!’)  And that’s put a stop to it before it starts.

That doesn’t mean it always will. Wearing this mask, I realize that I am starting to feel a fraction, oh, just a tiny fraction, but a piece, of the fear and trepidation that is felt by people who are ALWAYS Visible, because of who they are. I realize that an already volatile social situation could be pushed past the tipping point because of a bigot’s hatred. That a group of like-minded asshats might decide they can start a fight when they outnumber me. Wearing this mask is dangerous.  Nowhere near as dangerous as simply being Black, or openly gay, or being trans with a body or voice that makes it hard to pass as your true gender.  I do want to hasten to say, I get that. I’m feeling the barest taste of what is normal life to so many people. And I could put it away. Fold it up, tuck it in the glove box. Wear my Star Wars mask.

And knowing that, I can’t. Emma Lazarus said it best, ‘Until we are all free, we are none of us free.’  While fellow humans live in fear, because they are always Visible, how can I choose to become inVisible again? How can I hide who I am in fear. When the pandemic ends, I’m going to need to update my wardrobe. Pins. Belts. Shirts. I have become Visible, and I cannot in good conscious return to what I once was. 

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