Dressing out of the ordinary will often elicit strong reactions from both strangers and friends. I once dressed as a leprechaun for a fraternity party—not exactly a creative get-up for a guy with red hair—and one of the older guys in the fraternity, a self-styled badass who always wore cowboy boots and often had a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek, looked at my green rubber elf shoes and remarked, “Nice shoes, faggot,” and shook his head in disgust.
If wearing green shoes to a costume party can elicit that kind of remark from someone you know, just imagine what kind of reactions a guy like Jon-Jon Goulian gets in public. Goulian, author of the new memoir The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, is described in the following way by Dwight Garner in The New York Times Book Review: “He likes to totter in five-inch wedges from Steve Madden. He wears lip gloss and perfume. He wriggles his body into halter tops, skirts and sarongs. His eyebrows are plucked, his chest waxed, his ears pierced. Tattoos run up his body like vines, encroaching on his neck.”
Goulian, the grandson of the late political philosopher Sidney Hook, was a discomfiting sight to the men in his family. In an excerpt of the book that was published on Salon, Goulian writes,
The word he used was faygeleh, a mild Yiddish pejorative for homosexual. Queer and fairy are close approximations. … The straw that broke the faygeleh‘s back was my grandfather’s more direct confrontation, a few days later, of the issue of my sexual orientation, in which he minced no words, in either Yiddish or English, in expressing his disgust for my appearance. My grandfather later apologized to me for his meanness and intolerance during this visit, his letter including the following—”I hope you will one day forgive your Grandpa. It’s not your fault, it’s mine. I’m an antediluvian fuddy-duddy, an old stick-in-the-mud, and it’s not always easy for me to keep up with the behavior of young people.”
And then there was my dad. The poor man, to his hurt and disappointment, has never known quite what to make of me. And who can blame him? I’ve never looked like the children of his friends, or even like the children of strangers, and I certainly haven’t looked like the two children (my two older brothers) who preceded me. Nor have I acted like any of them. My behavior, in his eyes—the eyes of a hematologist and biochemist for whom there is always either a rational or irrational course of action—has been consistently irrational and bizarre. And I don’t know of a single father who would disagree with him.
Nor do I.
Goulian is not a homosexual. He says he sleeps with women; but he can’t get sexually aroused unless he’s submissive “and it helps if the woman looks like a boy.” He refers to himself as a “sexually neutered androgyne.” He falls far short of the traditional model of masculinity, and not only for how he looks on the street or acts in bed. He graduated from Columbia University and New York Law School, but his last job was earning $12 an hour baby-sitting a 7-year-old girl.
I have behaved, in many respects—and I have gotten no end of shit for it—like a vain, prissy, neurotic, body-obsessed “woman.” Or, in the words of a powerful Italian mobster named Jackie the Toad, with whom I worked very closely for a year after college, I have behaved, revoltingly, like “half-a-fag.”
Hmm. I wonder what Jackie the Toad would make of my green elf shoes.
I can empathize with what Goulian has to go through, but at the end of the day it’s his decision to flout norms and present himself to the world in a shocking, unconventional manner. If you’re gonna do that, you have to be willing to take some shit. To his credit, he seems to have the stomach to do that.