Who are we?


FORGET the particulars of the dispute over gays marching in the New York St. Patrick's Day parade and consider this: We would all like the right to march down Fifth Avenue and say who we are. Yet who are we but by our relationship to others? As often as not we define who we are by defining who we aren't.

The only thing I know about the Ancient Order of Hibernians is that they are not gay (they say) and do not want to be associated with those who are. But certainly they are more than this. The order was established in 1836 as a way of answering nativistic hatreds against the growing numbers of Irish in New York. (Nativism in this context is a misnomer -- the people guilty of it were never truly native.) We know what the Hibernians are against. What are they for?

One midnight last year when I was living in Dublin, I was walking home from a party and met a young man. He crossed the street toward me, walking stiffly, with the mincing steps of a baby, as though his shoes -- big black army boots -- were too tight.

He was drunk, but not so drunk that he couldn't recognize my apprehension at his approach. He stopped before me, just beneath a streetlight, and with a great show of gentle courtesy raised his big hands in the gesture of surrender -- a sign to me that he was harmless and that I should not be afraid.

He leaned forward, pushed his thick-lensed eyeglasses higher on his nose, blinked at me for a minute, and with the fussy enunciation peculiar to the very drunk he said, "What are you?"

I studied his blinking face, unsure what exactly it was he wanted to know. Sensing my puzzlement, he said, "I mean to ask, what sex are you? Girl or man?"

I was certain I had never before been asked such a question and not certain that I shouldn't be insulted by it. I invited the man to tell me which sex I looked like to him. He stepped closer and peered at me, mouth open in intense concentration. He had a thicket of long black hair, wore an army jacket, and in the soft glow of the streetlight I could make out three large silver rings on his fingers, two depicting the figure of the Grim Reaper and one a skull and crossbones. The rings looked heavy and ugly and menacing, like knots of twisted chrome.

"Well, you look like a girl to me," said the man.

"Good," I said. "I am."

The man laughed -- a high and surprisingly girlish laugh -- and apologetically he said, "I only wanted to be sure I had you situated correctly."

His voice was soft and pleasant and he had the confused demeanor of a stray dog, a blend of timidity and fierceness, diffidence and eagerness. Politely he asked how I intended to occupy myself the next day. I told him I planned to attend the Latin Mass at the Pro-Cathedral and afterward to meet a friend.

"Is it my turn now to ask you a question?" I said.

"Shoot," he said, rubbing his hands together, clearly delighted at having struck up this conversation in the middle of the night. I asked him about his rings. He responded by buffing them lovingly on his shirtfront, then held his hands out, admiring the rings in the glow of the streetlight, frowning with thoughtful interest. "These rings mean death," he said finally. "Are you afraid of death, miss?"

I told him I was not afraid of death.

"And you're dead right, too," he said eagerly, "for there is nothing to be afraid of. We're all going to die. Not even the rich escape that fate."

The man held up one hand for me. "The skull and crossbones on this ring symbolize the German SS," he said. I asked him why he wore a ring like that. He answered that he admired what he saw as their willingness to die. He didn't agree with the Nazi policy of killing the Jews, but death he was interested in, and as a matter of fact, while he didn't like what was done to the Jews, he might as well say he hated the Jews anyway. "I was in Israel once," he said, "and I knew some first-hand Jews. They are arrogant. They're always complaining about their six million. What about our four million?"

The four million he had in mind were, I assumed, the Irish victims of famine, emigration and hopeless battle. As if to clarify, he said, "It doesn't matter how they kill you, but they kill you. Because of who you are. The British did it to us."

"Does that make the extermination of Jews all right?" I said.

"No, but it's better to forget and be peaceful and know yourself than be dragging up old fights all the time and be adopting the policies of your oppressor."

I told the man I thought it was better to remember our capacity for destruction and be vigilant than to fall into torpor. The conversation had become a heated argument, and it was clear that he felt he was losing ground. He crossed his long arms defensively, and sounding nearly tearful, he stuttered, "I don't give a damn about history or Jews. You're only an American anyway. Americans don't know what they're talking about. Foreigners never do."

Though it would have been immediately obvious to any half-sensate Dubliner that my accent was American, I said, "What makes you think I'm American?" My words sounded angular and brutish compared to his gentle, singing ones.

"The way you sound, of course!" he cried.

I told the man that the way I sound had little to do with who I was, that it was simply an accident of history that I had been born in America and talk the way I do, that if things had been slightly different in Ireland, my family might never have left. I told the man the truth, that I had always felt more Irish than American.

"But you're not!" he said.

"I am," I said.

"Prove it," he said.

I told him the Irish government had given me a passport.

"Rot!" was the response. We argued this way for several minutes until finally he seemed to give in. Softly he said, "I like you, miss. You're mean and you're not afraid of me. A lot of girls are afraid of me. They don't like my rings and my clothes, so they don't like me. They think they know who I am and what I'm about."

"Precisely the way you think you know something about me because of my accent," I said.

The man smiled, and then he grew serious again. He told me a little about himself; he liked music and movies and cars. "I can talk to you," he said. "Know where I've been tonight? I've been in a homosexual bar. I think there are a lot of homosexuals in the world, so I'm curious. When I was in there tonight an old man came in and started hollering at us. He called us a lot of rude names. He was angry about us being there, about who we were. I felt bad about that.

"I don't really know what I am myself, to tell you the truth. I haven't had a girlfriend in years. I can hardly talk to girls. I have some kind of block. That's why I asked you what you were before -- girl or boy. I meant what are you in your head. Because to me the important thing is what you are in your head."

I told him that in my head I was a woman, an Irish one.

"OK," he said, grinning. "OK. I believe you. But you still have that accent."

I imitated a Boston accent for him, which he thought was tremendously funny. I imitated a Baltimore accent, and that he found even funnier. I said, "Open the door, hon," in the sliding way a Baltimorean would, and he laughed uproariously, rocking in his army boots, and when he had recovered enough to speak, he shook his head and said, "People are really different. Jesus, you have to love them!"

Rosemary Mahoney is author of the forthcoming "Whoredom in Kimmage: Irish Women Coming of Age." She wrote this from Baltimore for the New York Times.

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