NEW YORK — God bless Dr. Martin Luther King. It is in the tradition of what he fought for that today even we Republicans in New York City feel we can come out of the closet. And we have been doing so steadily over the past five years. Especially this week, it's a New York I hardly recognize - certainly not the one where I spent my first nine years mastering the art of hiding.
It turns out that for every five Democrats in New York, there is a whopping one Republican. That's not sarcasm; 1 to 5 is whopping, considering that it used to be far fewer, and felt like 1 to 1,000. Only a few years ago, encountering another conservative in New York was a scene reminiscent of the mischievous recognition among non-zombies in the 1978 version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Such rare run-ins elicited a cross between relief and glee, and usually led to commiseration over common experiences, such as the typical reaction one would get after outing oneself in "mixed" company:
"You're a Republican? But you seem intelligent."
"You're kidding, right?"
"How can you live with yourself?"
"Wow. Scary. That's really scary."
That you're the first Republican they've met in 20 years in a city of 8 million wasn't scary.One conservative amid a sea of people who all think the same way - that was the scary part. Because in the New York melting pot, you can look different, you can dress differently, you can behave and worship differently, but don't even think about thinking differently.
A pariah in hiding becomes privy to uncensored and unsparing political conversation - a risk-free activity in a town where there is an assumption of general agreement on the major issues. The word "Republicans" is never said without a snicker, because whatever that strange breed of alien is, it's somewhere far, far away - relegated to the pale of settlement known as flyover country.
Even after one was discovered to be the said monstrosity, the tone of the conversation wouldn't change. After all, there was no chance that the ensuing stream of insults and condescension would hurt such party's feelings, since Republicans didn't have any.
It is confounding to a Democrat to hear that, of Democrats and Republicans, Republicans are the meeker lot. But our own language suggests it: "silent majority" versus "vocal minority." The common perception is that aggression and mean-spiritedness are trademarks of Republicans, such that when the assault from the left is in full force, as it has been this week, a single insult or counterassault hurled from the right is magnified exponentially. There is an implied aggression in being Republican; a harshness of views seems to mean a harshness of character, so that just being Republican is enough for a member of the other side to feel under siege, and therefore enough of a provocation.
Being a Democrat needs no justification; affiliation isn't reproachable in and of itself. In contrast, someone identifying himself as a Republican goes through life having a lot more explaining to do.
And so it came to be that my personal mission during this convention week has been to get the message out that, contrary to popular belief, Republicans are not aliens. We're simply misunderstood. (Hath not a Republican hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?)
I've been trying to get that message out through conservative stand-up comedy at a club in Times Square, just an eight-block walk uptown from the convention. While the show is geared toward conservatives - both visiting and local - the occasional, curious Democrat wanders in and, after some coaxing from the comics, reluctantly identifies him or herself as such - to which I say, "Now you know what it feels like to be Republican."
In promoting the show this convention season, my two fellow comics and I have walked into the offices of NPR, CNN, ABC, CBS and others - and we found that the media have put on a brave face for the extra-terrestrial descent upon their city. Aside from some knowing nods to one another by a few tall, slender, enlightened NPR-affiliate women, whose politeness felt a tad strained, we were welcomed as any guests would be. Perhaps as news-timely curiosities, we're simply more palatable than we might be on a different week. Still, my Republican paranoia is giving way to the sense that my city is changing.
This is thanks in part to the new millennium's version of the 1980s Reagan Democrats, a phenomenon I call the post-9/11 ohmygosh-I-think-I-may-be-Republican Democrats. Especially since 9/11, not only are more people acknowledging conservative leanings, but New Yorkers are less horrified by close encounters of the second kind.
While a New Yorker redundant enough to wear a Kerry-Edwards button still isn't exactly making a statement, he can no longer assume friendly reception at every turn. In fact, as "traditional" New Yorkers are forced to accept that there are Republicans in their midst, and their cocoon of sheltered liberalism unravels all around them, I've begun to discern a familiar reticence and self-censorship in their demeanors. Witnessing the befuddled looks on some faces this week amid the swarm of unabashed Republicans who are occupying their streets and shaking the foundations of the provincial New York mind-set, I know that New York is finally living up to its promise of diversity.
As the last Times Square shuttle pulled out of the station at midnight on the first evening of the convention, a slightly agitated man in his 40s volunteered loudly to a man he didn't know on the train: "There are a bunch of Republicans coming this way, hoping to catch the train. I don't know if you believe in poetic justice ..."
Tired after a long day, the two conservatives who did catch that last shuttle slipped comfortably back into our closet, and offered no reaction as the man indulged in his own, loud comfort zone. I savored this flashback to the old New York, knowing it could be good-bye.
• Julia Gorin is a stand-up comic and writes a column for JewishWorldReview.com.