Patrick J Hamilton

Socks, (White) Lies, and Videotape

Filed By Patrick J Hamilton | January 20, 2015 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement
Tags: Adam Dalton Blake, Adam Mastoon, college life, Providence, Rhode Island, Rhode Island School of Design, RISD

RISDiversity: Community Narratives Project, now in its fourth year, is a program spearheaded by the Rhode Island School of Design/RISD Office of Intercultural Student Engagement and photographer, author, educator and artist Adam Mastoon. Through student, staff, and alumni portraits, narrated and embellished by the participants, the end result is a website, series of videos, and on-campus posters all designed to put a face to the broader spectrum of today's diversity discussion.

Using the written word and visual language, it's a story-based effort. And as with most story-based projects, there are always stories behind the stories. Here's mine. It's a story about socks.


I was so pleased with my portrait taken by Adam Mastoon as part of RISDiversity, and I'm so delighted with the excerpt he chose, culled from the answers to a series of questions designed to dig deep into our own self-perception about what makes each of us diverse. I've shared the end result many times over on social media, and the comment I get the most is about the Paul Smith socks.

I've always liked fun, colorful socks. Even when I was originally at RISD, my socks were something of a signature. But since I was "the guy from Miami" at the height of Miami Vice pastels and Wham! neons, they were easily dismissed as just a fashion statement. Even now, I still wear them. They're a way to add some flash and creativity to the male uniform.

But back then, it was about something else entirely.

A City of Two Tales

When I was a younger man wrestling with my sexual orientation, I had heard somewhere that gay Russian men wore red or otherwise flashy socks as a semi-secret signal to others who knew the code... sort of a woolen Grindr of the day, I suppose.

But this was College Hill, not the gulag. Yet for a young man coming out, there wasn't really a world of difference. I was in new territory, both personally and geographically, and neither were familiar terrain or terribly welcoming, away from home for the first time after a summer of finally admitting to myself I was gay.

The Providence I found in my first weeks there was a city of two tales. On my very first night, the eve before orientation, I walked from my hotel down to the freshman dorms to see where a cab would be dropping me the next morning for move-in. As I walked downhill that night, a male stranger in a pick-up truck waved a $20 bill out the window as I passed. I had a funny feeling he didn't want to commission art. (I kept going and never found out.)

Not even a month later, on a Providence discovery walk with one of my Nickerson dorm-mates, we were chased by a carful of townies until we were separated and I was crouching behind a greasy dumpster, where I stayed until that car with the growling exhaust system and overflowing with angry young men stopped circling the block.

So I learned two things quickly: that there was a community here (even though that man in the truck was most certainly not the best representation of it), but also that there were enemies to that community. Real, dangerous enemies. (I heard that same car's exhaust many times after. It was sort of the ticking-clock crocodile to my own Captain Hook.)

Even if you took away the circling car of potential gay-bashers, the city itself still kept me -- and others like me -- in our place, with messages less threatening but equally real. While Brown frat boys spilled in and out of their chosen neon-lit and picture-windowed watering holes on the main drag of Thayer Street, the gay bars of the day were found down alleys in the then-almost deserted-by-night downtown -- with no signs, and behind painted-over glass. There was the message, even when it came to a college ritual like sharing a beer, that my community was cause for secrecy, something to be ashamed of, that we were somehow "less than."

But, some say, "You went to art school! It had to be soooo gay!" I still get that a lot. Well, it wasn't really soooo gay.

One Sock Out of the Closet

To the surprise of many, RISD at the time of my attendance (1982-1986) was not incredibly out or open, institutionally or otherwise. While being gay wasn't totally taboo or (like some colleges then and now) cause for dismissal, it was definitely underground. There seemed to be two choices: to be totally, gloriously, wildly, artsy out (there were a few), or totally closeted (there were, I suspected and have since confirmed, many more).

As with many things, neither extreme seemed to fit me. I can't think of single faculty member who was out at the time either. And none of it was ever really discussed. But there were plenty of whispers.

While managing my very first figure-drawing classes, sharing a bathroom with a floor of guys, and sharing a bedroom with a blonde football player, I was looking for a safe way to find commonality, let alone a sense of community. And that was hard to do without risking my own secret, risking another chase down another alley.

paul-smith-signature-striped-socks.jpgSo while I wasn't in the closet, I was still hiding -- just for who I was.

But I never lied. If someone asked, I answered. I felt that by never outwardly denying who I was, that closet door was wide open, and I was now standing there in what I thought was plain sight. But I was still waiting for an invitation to step fully out, looking for a community to join, with no clue what the secret handshake was, without a rule book or roadmap. So the only foot I dared set out of that closet was one in one of those colorful socks.

Don't get me wrong: my RISD days were certainly not without gay experience. I had a growing network of gay friends. I made a few nervous trips to the Brown/RISD Gay/Straight Alliance. I went, in public, to see Cruising at the main theater on Thayer Street.

I confided in straight friends. I fell in and out of love, as you do in college. My heart was broken by some men and mended by others. There was even a stint as a coat-check boy in the biggest gay disco in the city. But it was all often exercised with white lies and switches in the gender of pronouns when recounting weekend plans or romantic aspirations. Still, I was hiding. Still, there was burden.

Things didn't fully improve, with age or growing personal comfort. A few years later as an RA, after I had confronted some guys in my house about drinking in their rooms -- and after I had badly fumbled an attempt of expressed affection to a guy who didn't want to return it (I was still working out the reception on my gaydar) -- I found an anti-gay epithet scrawled anonymously on my dry erase board. That was not easy to see, on my own home's door.

It was also a time when the very first rumors of AIDS had begun, so there was also a shroud, a fear, a deadly mystery attached to a fairly common act of coming of age.

It was also a time before any "It Gets Better" campaign, before Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," before Will & Grace, and before Glee (the show, or the feeling about being gay).

For all those reasons, I stayed squarely on that closet threshold but kept wearing those socks, hoping beyond hope that someone had read and remembered the same piece I had about the Russians. It seems so naïve now. Then, it was all I knew how to do. And I'm sure it was all far more obvious than I realized.

I don't wear those socks for the same reason now. But I very often remember now why I used to wear them then.

A Tale of Two Adams

This story about socks and diversity is also a tale of two Adams.

I wanted the socks to show in my portrait, and had requested a chair for my shoot to make sure they did, but I didn't explain to anyone the reason why (beyond the tie to my current profession as an interior designer). But it was photographer Adam Mastoon who, when he caught a flash of them as we started some test shots, encouraged me to ditch the shoes entirely, without knowing what that simple act actually symbolized to me.

That, it turned out, was a symbol of liberation -- of not hiding, of finally finding a safe place at RISD. Taking off the shoes was my final coming out, in a journey that began as a bewildered semi-closeted freshman, and brought me back full circle as an LGBT poster boy (well, poster man).

Thank you, Adam.


I did say this was a tale of two Adams, and the other Adam in this story is a vibrant (and funny and talented) young man I met through the RISDiversity process named Adam Dalton Blake, a RISD Apparel Department sophomore at the time of our photo shoot last spring.

I came back to add my voice to RISDiversity with the hopes of making the coming-out process easier for some other RISD student. From Adam's open ease -- with that joyous leap and his brilliant and matter-of-fact candor, totally owning language that could be used against him (and in the process, fully disarming those words of their intended bitter and biting power) -- I learned that things are indeed changing for the better... even as some counties in my home state of Florida try to dismantle marriage services rather than perform same-sex marriages, as transgender teens and gay college students like Leelah Alcorn and Tyler Clementi still take their own lives in deep despair.

So as open as many can be now, we've still got work to do. Adam gives me hope that that work will get done, and that it will get done fabulously. Perhaps his generation should be mentoring mine.

I'm glad that RISD (through RISDiversity) and all its Adams (behind the camera and in front) are working to be a place where we can all be comfortable enough to finally -- and fully -- show off our socks. And in doing so, we can show our true and beautiful colors.

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