I recall sitting in a room in the early seventies at Arizona State University waiting for the Economics 101 professor to show up. A day-old State Press, the university newspaper, sat on one of the desks. I picked it up and thumbed through until I came to the editorial page. I liked to see what the students thought about the world’s events. But the most interesting thing on the page, in the paper for that day, was a letter to the editor. Someone, a gay student at the university, had been murdered in Phoenix and the letter writer was berating the city, the university, the population as a whole for a lack of earnest concern about the death, who had killed the victim, the state of society’s relationship with gay people in general. In the margin next to the letter to the editor, someone had scribbled, “The only good gay is a dead one.” I need to confess that when I read that I laughed out loud. And for years I have thought about that and asked, why? Some of it was a chuckle at the local mentality, about the nature of a seemingly intractable relationship between gays and straights in the 1970s in Arizona, but part of it was an attitude on my part.
I have to admit, my attitude towards the gay community has always been a complex one. My first overt activity with a gay was on the ball court at North School in Casa Grande, Arizona. Every afternoon, after my seventh grade classes were over, I gathered with a bunch of classmates and we shot baskets. One of the regular participants was a boy who had a reputation for being a “fag” or a “queer” as we called gay people in those days. One afternoon he and I ended up as the only ones left on the court. As the sun started to set, all I can call it was: he assaulted me. But before it went far, I got away and went home and never played basketball again unless I was with a gang of kids. I told my friends about my encounter and they all laughed, having had, they said, similar experiences with this young man. We huffed and puffed and talked among each other and made boasts about how we would handle it the next time, stuff like “If he does it again, I’ll get my dad’s twelve gauge and blow that fag’s ass away.” Unfortunately, that young man eventually assaulted someone and got hauled off to jail, and knowing the attitudes and laws in Arizona in the early 1960s, I am sure he went to the pen.
And I could say that experience developed my attitude about gays, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I had a gay aunt, maybe two, and I understood that on some level long before my experience on the ball court. Maybe not in a bright shining way, but I knew her as being different and that’s what this hatred and fear of gay people is, I think, about some people being different and the trepidation that creates in us. My father and his many brothers were two-fisted toughs, bare knuckle boxers who adored their sister, whom they even called “Butch”. Because “Butch” was one of the terms for a gay woman. So I knew it on some level. Besides that aunt, I had gay cousins, three that I know of and maybe more, and I have a nephew who has come out.
My first wife had at least three gay cousins, maybe more, one of whom I called on the telephone when I was stranded in a snowstorm in El Paso. He came to the Holiday Inn and picked me up and took me to his home and invited some of his gay (and straight) friends over and we laughed and ate and drank and had a great time, and I recall sitting in a chair and looking at them, thinking that these were a bunch of fags, some of whom I had known for years and whom I had known were gay, and we were having a great time just being folks, talking, laughing, no sex, no assaults.
Over the years I have come to accept gay people as friends, as working partners, as neighbors, as teachers. The ones I know are smart, capable, talented and mind their own business, so unlike the young man who assaulted me. Even though I didn’t know it then, I am sure that some of the men I served with in the hell hole of Khe Sanh, Vietnam, were gay. Brave men. Warriors. Men who did not dodge the draft.
So, as I sit here, I wonder why, when someone pulls out in front of me on the road, or does something else to frighten or irritate me, I say things under my breath like “F-ing Fag.” Why does that latent anger? fear? resentment? still remain? Why do I say it? Right now, some of my best friends are gay. But I am still capable of epithets that denigrate who they are in a base and crude way.
So when I read on the internet about Kobe Bryant, a man I don’t particularly admire, calling a referee in a basketball game an “F-ing Fag,” I got all uppity and denounced him until I caught myself doing the same thing out on the road yesterday morning. I thought, I’m not any different than he is, and then I thought, but I don’t hate people who are gay, and then I thought, he probably doesn’t either. But the grudge, the edge, the buffer still remains, doesn’t it?
Not to make excuses for Kobe or myself. Gays are killed in this country for being who they are…people. No less a stalwart of conservative Republican politics, The Honorable Alan Simpson, lately a Senator from the very conservative state of Wyoming, last week attacked some members of his own party, prominent members, for their homophobia. That surprised me, that someone as conservative as Senator Simpson, and a politician to boot, would have the guts to make a statement about such an incendiary issue. But I suspect one of the things his actions indicate is that there are a lot of homophobes in the Republican Party. And there are a lot of gay people in the world and somehow the twain must meet. And then it probably isn’t fair to just say Republicans are homophobic; a lot of Independents, Communists, Libertarians, Tea Partiers, Socialists, Know-Nothings and Democrats probably fit in that group too. Even me, given my outbreaks, could be described as homophobic.
As I sit and think about it, it seems to me that we have a lot of problems in this country…high unemployment, a lot of bitter economic-class-based rancor, two (or maybe three) wars, and a host of other issues. Given all this turmoil, do I need to worry about what a man and woman, or two men, or two women do in their beds at night? It is none of my business. Maybe, if I think about this enough, I might stop my little outbreaks. I hope so.