Serving Up Pride: Working In Restaurants Freed Me to Live the Life I Choose

Pride is like a fine wine that gets better with age.

A waiter approaches a table at a restaurant

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Please be advised: This essay contains a homophobic slur.

Thirty-two years ago, I was waiting tables during one busy lunch when a four-top of men sat in my section. Their outward appearance gave me the impression that they drove pick-ups and watched sports while expecting their wives and girlfriends to make them sandwiches. It’s said that we can’t judge a book by its cover, but I did and they did the same thing to me. After taking their drink order, I heard one of them refer to me as a "faggot" as I walked away. They judged my book cover to be a dog-eared copy of Nancy Drew’s The Secret of the Old Clock

The word left his mouth and went into my ear to travel a well-worn path up to my brain and then straight to my heart. Rather than saying anything to this man, I pretended to not have heard the slur and dutifully retrieved his lemonade. It wasn’t the first time I’d been called that name and as much as it hurt, I was used to it. I wasn’t as brave then as I am now and didn’t have enough pride or confidence to call him out for his behavior. Instead, I held back tears and served lunch to this man and his friends. Whether the tears were from anger or hurt, I’m not sure; probably both. 

Pride isn’t something we’re automatically born with. It’s not in our genes. It has to be taught and learned and sometimes it takes years to get there. Without seeing many other examples of proud gay men, how was I to know it was okay to be who I was? Back then, even Elton John had just come out of the closet and George Michael was still pretending to be straight. I wasn’t ashamed of being gay, but I certainly didn’t draw attention to it unless I was ensconced in the relative safety of the gayborhood I lived in. Pride is like a fine wine that gets better with age and the more you surround yourself with others who are proud, the more proud you become. 

That hurtful encounter happened at the same restaurant where I once hid myself from a former high school friend who came in as a customer. I was embarrassed that he was there on a business lunch and I was there wearing a gravy-stained, green polyester work uniform. In my view, he was a success because he was wearing a suit and I was a failure because I was serving fried chicken and okra. Looking back, it seems foolish to have been ashamed of being a 24-year-old waiter who was auditioning by day and doing plays and musicals by night. I was pursuing my dreams and that should have been enough. Again, I didn’t have the sense to be proud of what my life was. 

Decades of confidence building have passed since then and I know both of those situations would be handled very differently now. Any person who had the guts to foolishly use that word to describe me today would get an earful of carefully curated sentiments, backed up with passion and pride. All the times I’ve swallowed my hurt would come gushing out. What I got in me — what I've been holding down inside of me — oh, if I ever let it out, there wouldn't be signs big enough! There wouldn't be lights bright enough to handle that amount of self-worth. 

And as for waiting tables well into middle-aged adulthood, I’m fine with that too. I did it because it allowed me to become who I am. Working in restaurants for as long as I did gave me the freedom to live the life I chose. If I was working in a restaurant now and that high school friend came into my section, I’d cheerfully serve and tell him how proud I am of everything I’ve accomplished — including telling you this story.

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