South Carolina, 1985. It had been a tough tech rehearsal, I was technical director for a local theater production, and so our producer brought us back to her house for a late, late, late supper. Her daughters were there, one with her new military boyfriend in tow, and we gathered and broke bread and went over all that we needed to fix on the show. We were tired. I was tired. And at some point the new boyfriend jumped into the conversation with a f* joke. As if from a distance, I heard myself say, “If there were a black person here, would you tell a black joke?” And the dessert forks went down around the table. He stumbled out a “no,” and I heard myself say, “Then why did you tell that joke with me sitting here?” And he said, “I didn’t know.” And I said “You never do.” Then, because I’m Southern and there are manners somewhere deep inside, I told a joke, something innocuous that got people pretending it was all back on track.
Later, I felt bad about it. I’d ruined the dinner, you have this big stand you take in your mind and when you do it in real life it’s not so great after all. So I went in the kitchen and apologized to our producer and said I shouldn’t have said anything. And there was a pause, and she said: “I would’ve been ashamed of you if you hadn’t.”
I maybe said “thank you” or offered to help with the dishes, but in any case I said my good-byes and left. And I’m driving home and I can’t see, and I realize I’m crying, I’m sobbing, and I have to pull the car over. And I’m not sure what’s happening, is it that big speeches aren’t so great in real life, or I could’ve made the point nicer, and it was all likely true but what it really was, was that I was 26 and it was the first time a straight person had ever expected me to stand up for myself.