Thursday, April 2, 2009

Another announcement

I'm not gay, but you could have fooled a lot of people. In fact, I did.

Yesterday was April Fool's Day. I wanted to mark the occasion by posting a prank first thing in the morning and maybe fooling a few friends before they realized it was April 1, put two and two together, said "you got me" and moved on.

I did likewise a year ago on the first April Fool's Day after I started this site, announcing that after six months I'd had my fill of blogging and was calling it quits (Enough is enough, 4-1-2008). Within twenty minutes a friend of mine called out the prank in a blog comment post, cutting short the effectiveness of the hoax but giving rise to an essay the next day about memorable pranks (Pranks for the memories, 4-2-2008).

Back to this year. I'd been meaning to come up with a good prank idea, but as of Tuesday, the eve of April Fool's Day, I still hadn't spent any time trying to think of one. I mentioned this to the date I'd brought to the opening night of Rent at the Oriental Theater. Perhaps inspired by the subject matter of the play, she suggested that I "out" myself.

Boom! That was it. Plausible, interesting, original, it would fit the bill perfectly. Plus it could be easily expressed in a few short paragraphs before work the next morning (I figured, incorrectly as it turned out, that I could only fool people first thing in the morning before they realized what day it was). I was so content with the last-minute idea that I didn't stop to consider the probably inevitable result that all hell would break loose.

There were two big differences between this year's prank and last year's. First, this year's incendiary topic. Coming out is an intensely personal decision that, despite recent social progress, remains fraught with weighty consequences. It's a hot-button issue likely to provoke strong reactions and one that many people, including me, don't consider a laughing matter.

Second, the Facebook factor. Last spring I wasn't on Facebook yet, so I just posted my 2008 April Fool's Day prank and that was that. Because some of my friends follow the blog via news readers, RSS feeds and the like, they caught on pretty quickly, but the traffic volume was in the usual range (I jokingly tell people that I write this site for literally tens of readers, but it also happens to be true).

Last summer, at the urging of a friend in California who wanted to play Scrabble across the nation, I joined Facebook. I've since learned that it is an efficient way to call attention to things online. So yesterday morning, as I ran out to catch my train, I threw a link onto Facebook. I felt like I'd come up with a pretty good prank and I wanted people to see it. Again, I didn't stop to think that this was pouring gasoline onto the fire.

Facebook-posting a link, incidentally, is no guarantee of high traffic. Just the other day I wrote what I thought was a reasonably enjoyable little essay on poker, but the Facebook link I posted didn't exactly set the world on its ear. Fifteen people or so clicked on it, which is fine. I write the site as much for myself as for others and whoever's interested is welcome to join in.

Maybe it was that I called the blog post "An announcement"; maybe it was that the short excerpt on Facebook included the words "I'm gay"; more likely both. In any case, juicy gossip being more enticing reading than the gambling habits of a gentleman degenerate, within minutes there was a whole lot of clicking going on:

human nature, graphically depicted

Even some non-Facebook types got word thanks to the enthusiastic mass-emailing of various yentas among my fellow alumni of the Northwestern University School of Law. You know who you are.

And boy, did people buy it. As much as I'd like to credit the persuasive power of my "confession," I think my friend's novel prank idea mostly did the trick, that and the fundamental decency of people. We usually believe what we're told, especially by trusted friends. I certainly do; I tend to fall for pranks too. And who comes out when they're not gay?

I'd correctly assumed it would be immediately called out by cynics as an April 1 prank. What I didn't expect was that, even as it was roundly deemed a hoax, people kept chiming in to voice their belief, offering congratulations and support for hours after it was debunked. Last year's prank ended mere moments after it started and I thought this year's would follow suit. I didn't expect it to mislead anyone for more than a few minutes.

I was dumbfounded that so many people continued to believe it amid so much discussion of April 1. Some people even said things like, "Congratulations, and by the way, it's April Fool's Day, so some people might not believe you, but way to go." I was slightly amused but mostly abashed by their insistent gullibility.

That brings me to the emotional angle I'd been too naïve to anticipate. My initial satisfaction at having pulled a successful prank was soon mixed with regret over wasting people's emotional energy. I didn't mean to put one over on people for more time than it took for them to realize it, slap their foreheads, smile and move on (this did occur in most cases). I felt bad about that but decided to hold my silence and let it play out for the rest of the day.

Beyond duping people -- which is the point of any April Fool's Day prank, but something I still felt increasingly guilty about as the day wore on -- I was taken aback by the vehement anger of a Facebook friend whom I apparently don't know as well as I thought I did. She profanely excoriated me as "puerile. offensive. beyond the pale." and further
wrote, "This post has occupied my entire day. I am an empath. If it's an April Fool's 'joke,' I am de-friending . . . and disseminating. I have been checking this page every half hour." All I can say in response is: Wow.

She has in fact since de-friended me on Facebook, which is probably for the best all the way around. Meanwhile her husband, whom I've never even met, went a step further, viciously cursing me out in a seething email. I consider his behavior more extreme than my own.

For those unclear on the concept, an April Fool's Day prank is an attempt to convince people that something is true. Its goal is not laughter but belief. It is designed to fool people, as the name of the holiday implies. My prank was not an attempt to be funny or make light of gay issues. I can't believe I even have to say this.

Gay friends of mine, actually, thought it was great. One of them, a guy I've had dinner with twice in the past two weeks, posted the following on Facebook: "Either way, this is spectacular. If it's an April Fool's joke, it's an especially good one. And hopefully no one will tell you 'I always thought so!' "

Thank you. Exactly the intended spirit of the prank. Take a lesson from a gay man, easily offended hetero couple.

I didn't anticipate anyone taking offense, but in hindsight, it was the inevitable fallout of my choice of subject matter. I wasn't worried about homophobia in my generally progressive circle of friends, but I probably should have anticipated a well-intentioned sensitivity so highly tuned that it strains to find offense.

I hesitate even to say "some people can't take a joke," which is clearly true in the case of the above two folks, because, again, that might confuse the issue. My stunt wasn't a joke, it was a prank (how about "those who can't take a joke are probably similarly unable to take a prank"?). Still, it's not their fault. Such people exist in the world and by putting it out there for all to see, I asked for it.

Could I have found a less controversial topic? Surely. Was it ill-advised? Possibly. Was it all those terrible things the two achingly empathetic crusaders said it was? I don't think so. Everyone else, gay and straight alike, responded in a way I could relate to, taking it in the intended spirit and chuckling over being fooled.

I mentioned to a friend later in the day that my prank had spiraled out of control. He asked me whether I was concerned that the big reveal, i.e. the explanation contained in today's post, might not be distributed as widely as the initial "news" (as Mark Twain observed, a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on).

That issue hadn't occurred to me, and I'm not concerned about it. If being mistaken for a gay man were a worry of mine, I wouldn't have pranked about it in the first place.

As a group -- and boy am I hesitant to generalize on this topic -- I like the gay people I know at least as much as the heterosexual people. Without a single exception I can think of offhand, they're caring, bright, educated, clever, fun-loving, successful, funny and charitable. I would be proud to take my place among them. Similarly, if you read today's post and still want to think I'm gay, be my guest.

Meanwhile, all pranking aside, the sincerity of people's heartfelt responses was real. I am deeply moved by the dozens of supportive Facebook posts, emails and phone calls I received. It is humbling that so many people care. I'm sorry to have taken you in like that.

On a like note, apologies to anyone who was offended and thanks to the (happily, far more numerous) people who congratulated me on pulling off a memorable hoax.


Anonymous said...

You're still a Cubs fan, and that makes you gay enough.

topaz said...

I am extremely upset. Upset that I got a full day behind on my blog reading and wasn't around to call you out on your prank this year until after you published your retraction. I am putting an April 1 reminder on my calendar for next year so this doesn't happen again!

On second thought, maybe I would have joined in by sending you the exciting news that Japan is allowing gay marriage, but only when one partner is foreign

As long as I'm on the topic of exciting Japanese news, check out this new U.S. based food product, Sushi Popper. The interesting thing is that the Japanese printed on the label actually says, phonetically, "Sushi Pooper". I am not making this up. A representative of that company has announced they are fixing the typo.

Jenny Blair said...

Ditto topaz's disappointed tardiness. ne stress pas, Ben; some people are very eager to be offended.


Andrea said...

Frankly, I thought it was the best and gutsiest April Fools prank I saw all day. I'm sorry people got unnecessarily worked up about it, for their sake.

If you did it on any day other than April Fools, as a sort of thought experiment, you'd have some apologizing to do. But I think the way you pulled it off was pretty awesome.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a fabulous prank, Ben. Very "Seinfeld"-esque and very well done. The 99% of us who "got it" as a joke are also the same people who wouldn't care if you, in fact, were gay. I'm sorry about your de-friended friend, but the rest of us are still here, still laughing, and ever supportive. - Keri Halperin

Anonymous said...

fuck em if they cant take a joke. i thought it was awsome

Anonymous said...

I still think you're gay.

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