by Beau Burriola -
Special to the SGN
I was buttoning up the impossible top button of my shirt in the gym locker room when I saw out of the corner of my eye in the mirror just the flash of a familiar face and a big red bow tie. It took only a couple of seconds for me to realize who the famous guy was who just walked into my gym.
'You're the prime minster of Belgium!' I said to the man accusingly. Once I'd realized how it sounded, I half expected him to say that, no, in fact he was a spoon.
Instead, Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo graciously smiled and said hello and asked me how I was. As a Gay man, I have tons of respect for any Gay man who can become prime minister of a country - even one as small as our tiny Belgium - so I was very proud to meet him.
'Are you standing because your butt is sore from meeting the prime minster?' Jan, my colleague, said to me the next day at work as I was holding a coffee, before bending over with laughter at his joke. Ever since I told my co-workers that I had met the prime minster at the gym, the Gay jokes have been coming non-stop, from all of my coworkers, both of my managers, even some of my closest friends. But Jan - whose last name in Dutch translates to 'ass bonnet' - has been the worst.
'You know that Gay men all like very young boys, don't you?' he said as matter-of-factly, as if simply saying the price of petrol had gone up or there would be a transport strike next week.
'That's ridiculous, Jan,' I said, careful to keep my tone low and my defense hidden. I'm not out at work and it's not hard to see why, so I'm careful in how I speak.
'It's true, my sister's uncles are Gay,' he went on, delving into some unpleasant and clearly untrue story about his uncles.
'I just want to warn you to be careful,' my boss said, 'you know the P.M. is Gay, right?' Simon's comment shocked me back 400 years into a dumbfounded, medieval silence. Perhaps he thought he was really doing me a favor by protecting me from the boils and melting organs that the presence of a Gay person causes.
'Don't let him corner you in the shower,' Filip said with a grin and a nudge, which I sickeningly sold out to and responded to with the best smile I could manage. Sometimes it feels like the first year of basic training 12 years ago all over again.
It all has me fuming mad: how can Belgium, a country with legal Gay marriage and a Gay prime minster, be so ass-backwards? Why hasn't legal recognition brought social acceptance? How can even remotely intelligent people not imagine that someone at their office might be Gay and hear all this garbage?
All of it is a constant reminder of why, at 32 years old, I chose to put myself back into the closet at work. Before getting this job, I lost another opportunity because the hiring manager - who had liked me for the whole hour of my interview - bristled when I mentioned my partner and immediately ended the interview. Now, at this job, I see every day how deep the veins of homophobia run through the still-beating traditions and cultures of an ancient Belgian discomfort with anything new.
Di Rupo was presented with the accusation he was Gay in 1996, to which he replied simply, 'Yeah, so what?'
One day, I will come out and tell these people exactly what I think. I will tell Jan that straight men tend to like younger women, too, and that he should hide his daughter, I will warn people of the contagiousness of Simon's thickness. I will tell Filip what he can do with his ball jokes. I will tell them I am proud to have a Gay prime minister. On July 15 this year, when I'm one year into this job and can no longer be fired because someone doesn't like my face, I'll change all the 'she's' in my sentences to 'he's' to stop people before they speak. I will have my own 'Yeah, so what?' moment. I will do my part. If Elio Di Rupo can become prime minister of Belgium, I can come out at work in Belgium.
'Don't turn your back to the P.M. tomorrow,' Filip advised me before leaving for the day.
'I won't,' I smiled. Just you wait, I thought. One day, you'll see.
Beau Burriola is an expat biding his time to select the perfect outfit for coming out day. firstname.lastname@example.org
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