Many years ago, I appeared naked on the cover of a magazine. Well, I wasn't completely naked. I was covering my crotch with a magazine.
My then-girlfriend was starting a literary magazine that would also be accessible online and she had a specific idea for the cover of the inaugural issue -- me, naked, looking terrified, with a magazine over my crotch, standing in a New York City subway car. It would be funny, interesting and eye-catching. Immediately, I was on board. So at around 3 on a Sunday morning, we took the L train to the last stop in Brooklyn where we thought there wouldn't be many people around. After waiting eons for the train car to empty out, it was my moment. I slipped off my shorts, shirt and sandals, grabbed the magazine, put it in front of me, and my girlfriend frantically snapped as many pictures as possible.
I was pleased with the picture selected for the cover. I would have preferred one that highlighted my broad shoulders, and my abs weren't as tight as I wanted them to be, but it was a funny picture. My girlfriend and her editorial team distributed copies of the magazine to any store or vendor who would carry them. I sat next to a girl on the train reading the magazine. There I was, (almost) naked on someone else's reading material. Should I tap her on the shoulder and say, "Hey, recognize this?"
I left her alone.
I thought the magazine cover would have no negative impact in my life. At the time I was temping at different offices; I certainly didn't have the kind of job where I would be maligned for such a stunt. I imagined someone "shocking" me during a job interview by pulling it out; I'd shrug it off and say it was all in good fun. Around that time, my girlfriend designed a website for a show I was writing and directing. On the site was a link to the magazine's home page. I'd told my family about my show, but I never really mentioned the magazine. I was hoping they would simply find out about the cover on their own, bring it up to me, and laugh about it.
A few weeks later, I was getting ready for work when my grandmother called me in tears. She told me that she couldn't believe that I was naked on a magazine. I barely recall the details of the conversation. All I can remember is me talking, her screaming, and then hanging up on me. I didn't call back.
Later that day, I got an e-mail from my aunt who told me what I was doing was wrong and it wasn't art. She asked how I would feel if her daughter (my cousin) saw the cover. I didn't e-mail her back.
I thought it would be useless to argue with her. She had evidently made up her mind that I was this liberal, provocative hipster weirdo living in NYC who said that, "The human body is beautiful and artistic and if you can't get it, screw you, society." I wanted to tell her that I didn't do the cover because I thought it was "artistic." I didn't do the cover because I wanted to make a statement. I did it as a favor and because I thought it fun. And honestly, I wouldn't have cared if my cousin saw the cover, but I never told her that because I thought it would just continue a very frustrating conversation.
For a while, I didn't speak to either my aunt or my grandmother. When my grandmother and I eventually started talking again, we didn't discuss the cover. Everything simply went back to normal. As time wore on, my aunt and I began speaking too. Sometime later, my grandmother sent me a photograph and a letter. The photograph was of her with a few of her students (she was an elementary school teacher). I was touched by the picture. On the back of the photo was a message, something along the lines of: How could you corrupt these children? In her letter, she told me she loved me very much and she didn't want anything to happen to me. She was worried the cover would result in one of two outcomes: either a dangerous gay man would see the cover, recognize me on the street and try to rape me, or some homophobe would see the cover, assume I was gay and attack me.
It pained me to hear what my grandmother thought of gay men. But she was brought up with specific ideas of how people should act and what nudity represents. And while she had these ideas, they didn't actually mesh with the way she lived her life: One of her best friends was a gay colleague. Ultimately, I stayed close with my grandmother until the end of her life. Our relationship certainly outlasted the magazine, which is since defunct, and even the photo, which is now a casualty of online neglect, nowhere to be found.
Would I do it again? Probably. But I'm older now, and I need my sleep. I'm not up for traipsing around on the subway after 3 a.m.