When Valerian Ruminski spotted Jade London on the bus on a Thursday night in Ottawa, he took exception to her elaborate manicure. London had clusters of rhinestones glued to the ends of her fingers, and Ruminski felt the ostentatious ornamentation was impractical and out of place.
And so, in the amount of time it takes to make a snap judgment (which is no time at all), he took a photo of her with his phone and shared it on Facebook with some choice remarks about her perceived intelligence and her need for attention. Why else, he argued, would she wear something so gaudy in public?
Ruminski, an opera singer who hails from Buffalo, New York, admits he didn’t know London when he saw her, didn’t know that elaborate nails are a common form of self-expression for her or that she is a well-known, local drag queen. He also didn’t know (nor did anyone else, at that point) that she was only days away from being crowned Miss Capital Pride. He simply saw something he didn’t like and took to social media to say so.
The backlash came fast, and it came hard. Local tenor Dustin Hiles spotted the posts and took a screenshot, which was shared with London. People got upset. Ruminski responded by deleting the posts from his Facebook timeline, but in today’s plugged-in world, where posts can and do go viral in the blink of an eye, deleting one’s mistakes doesn’t make them go away. When Opera Lyra became aware of what was going on, they fired Ruminski from his role in their upcoming production of Tosca.
Ruminski says that when the incident occurred, he was thinking in the moment and not about what far-reaching consequences his words might have. “I guess I was ticked off, not just about seeing something like that, but the day,” he says. “I wasn’t having a very good day.” He notes that he often takes to social media to share strong opinions about things he sees and topics of interest. “There was more humour behind it than there was anger. I was bemused at seeing this.”
Ruminski says the fact that London is a member of the LGBT community had nothing to do with his comments. “I did not know that it was Pride weekend . . . I did not really say to myself that the person was one sexual orientation or another. That didn’t have anything to do with it.”
The fact that, by his estimation, London’s nails must impede the functionality of her hands was more of a factor for him, something he now acknowledges is a “straight-guy-stupid way to think.”
Hiles, who is a member of both the opera and LGBT communities (he identifies as bisexual), says that he knew Ruminski previously through the opera world and that when he saw the comments on Facebook, he was shocked. “The first reaction that I had — it was hurtful for [Jade] and it was hurtful for me,” he says. “I empathized with Jade and I felt . . . it was just like being stabbed in the heart.”
He feels that cultural differences may have had something to do with Ruminski’s reaction. In Canada, he says, the LGBT community is more widely accepted than in the United States, and people north of the border tend to err on the side of politeness rather than making blunt statements.
“I’ve been very involved in the gay community for, like, a decade almost, and there are weird things. You see weird things — we do weird things,” Hiles says. “So if I was someone from America who is straight and I saw someone on the bus with nails like that, I don’t know if I would do anything different.”
“I think it’s just being misinformed and not understanding our community, the eccentricities of our community,” he says, drawing a parallel with late comedian Joan Rivers. “She wasn’t visceral or . . . angry, it was just social commentary that was just blunt.” Hiles says that he and Ruminski spent some time together following the incident and that, in his opinion, Ruminski is “just a blunt person.”
Ruminski, who has since apologized to the LGBT community, says he’s learned a lot more about the LGBT community following the incident. He also notes that in his personal and political views he has always been a liberal and that he could never have made it as an opera singer if he were a homophobe. “Call me a jerk,” he says. “Label me a curmudgeon, a grump, something like that. But you cannot hang homophobia on me.”
Still, he does continue to take issue with people’s flamboyant personal choices when it comes to appearance. “People who do things like that have a need to be looked at, and we see it all around us,” he says. “I don’t want to have to deal with their needs. I don’t want to have to look.”
But in a social media world awash with selfies and the endless, public search for approval, it can be argued that we’re all a little guilty of wanting others to look — and that includes when we post our comments publicly. The ease and ubiquity of instantaneous sharing is something Ruminski recognizes as problematic. “People have been lulled into the complacency of feeling that my Facebook page is my living room and that I’ve got 1,500 friends that have been invited to my house to look on my wall,” he says.
And sometimes, whether it’s on the bus or on the internet, people don’t like what they see.