Listening to Norman Lear discuss his creation of Archie Bunker on NPR as my son struggled with a preschool bully, I considered the line that distinguishes bully from bigot. It’s a rather thin line.
Consider Reverend Fred Phelps’ protesting of American soldiers’ funerals with placards reading, “God hates fags.” At one point in my life, I’d have laughed with friends at the signs as we watched smaller, weaker, weirder kids suffer wedgies and nipple twisters in the locker room after gym class, becoming inert with anxiety if bully or victim got too close to my locker. It was not safe to stand up for those guys, for the bully would question my manhood, call me gay. Despite these anxieties, it did not prevent me from using that same epithet and developing prejudices against those whom I simply did not know.
The ease with which we observed some peers’ effeminacy or eccentricities may not have put my friends and I in Archie Bunker town, but our ignorance had us on the right road. In our privileged, sheltered community, it was easy not to know the real world, and not knowing the real world affords easy stereotypes and prejudice. Had I remained in the dark, I can’t imagine the person I would be, but two friends created a sense of acceptance for the differences of others no church, politician, teacher or parent had been able to instill.
Kath and I had dated for two years when I learned my first lesson. She’d witnessed my friends and I laughing and creating jokes about peers and their sexuality. She’d accused me of homophobia, and I admitted she was right. On Christmas Eve after our first semester of college, she and her sister were talking and a man’s name came up in conversation. Kath asked, “who’s that?”
Her sister indicated this was their older brother’s boyfriend. I could feel Kath shrink in the chair beside me at this information. My mother had told me of rumors that her brother was gay, but Kath had not spoken those words directly to me, and I knew she now felt obliged to say something. She turned to me and said, “we have to talk.” We bundled up to take the dog for a walk, and as we left the house it felt like we were in one of those spy movies where the protagonist knows his house is bugged, and he has to tell his girlfriend how much danger they truly face.
“My brother’s gay,” she said.
“I gathered as much. Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“You’ve made it pretty clear how homophobic you are.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
But that night was the first time I asked myself, “where did that homophobia come from?” After all, I didn’t know any gay people. I learned in that moment that her brother’s sexuality had no impact on how I felt about his sister. Nor did it have any impact on how I felt about her brother. In that moment I knew that it never would have made any difference when I received the information, and it therefore made no difference now. Of course I’d be okay with her brother being gay; after all, I wasn’t.
Six years later, my friend Joe continued my shift from ignorant to enlightened.
I first met Joe as a junior in high school. A local actor, Joe was brought in as the assistant director of the fall play to coach acting skills to those of us with no training. Only seven years older than me, this adult let us call him Joe, and his proximity in age made it seem as if he connected with us on a level no other adult we knew could or would. As the fall play wound down, he expressed a desire to direct a play called Voices from the High School the next year if the powers that be would let him. He told us passionately about its subject matter, and I thought it sounded great; it dealt with drinking and death and adolescent insecurity. Though it also included scenes addressing homosexuality among high school students, and at the time I didn’t know any gay people.
Near the end of my senior year of high school, Joe starred as Alan in Lanford Wilson’s Lemon Sky on the South Side of Pittsburgh. It was my first time into the South Side; it was my first time seeing a play in the round, and it was the first time I observed a character struggling with his sexuality. The play ends with Alan kicked out of his abusive father’s home because he does not sleep with women. I thought it was extremely powerful, and I was impressed with Joe’s ability to play a character so unlike himself.
After high school graduation, I stayed in touch with Joe. I remained in town for college at the University of Pittsburgh, and since Joe was in town too, we got together every couple months to go see a movie and grab a bite after. That first semester, we talked about Kath and school, and his shows, his job, and the dates he rarely went on. His dating life was so dry that one night I recall him dropping me off at my parents’ house, and he said, “You know I’d consider being gay if the thought of having sex with a man didn’t disgust me so much.”
I don’t remember how I responded; possibly with silence, but most likely it was a grunt of agreement, for at the time, while I considered myself homophobic, I really didn’t know any gay people. I knew people who I thought were gay, but I didn’t hate them, or even not like them, and I certainly wasn’t afraid of them – Kath had yet to tell me about her brother.
Through my undergrad years, Joe and I continued to talk about our relationship woes; his were markedly absent, and mine were consistent. Joe never questioned my choices, so even when I broke up and got back together over and over with Kath, he would bear both my tears and delight. I remember his pained tenor when I called him late one night out of a Dungeons and Dragons session; I was convinced my life was over, sobbing and in shock, and he offered to leave his friends at one in the morning to talk to me. I passed that offer and others to come as my relationship collapsed, but I am forever grateful for his ability to remain unbiased when it counted and protective when I needed it most.
We continued to see films together, and now that I was old enough to drink our film experiences were usually accompanied by a beer or two after. I recall distinctly one evening in 1994; we went to see Interview with a Vampire, and as we crossed the parking lot to the bar under the chilled November, starry sky, a carload of teen boys drove by and called out, “Fags!”
Intimidated and unnerved, I could only say to my friend, “Well.”
“Punks,” murmured Joe.
And we said no more about the incident as we entered the bar. Yet, it bothered me. Somehow, I wanted the opportunity to respond. I have no idea what I would have said, but I was full of conflicting emotions. What made them think we were gay? How dare some stranger shout something like that at just anyone? Then again, hadn’t I done the same only a few years before? How often had I called out an epithet to someone I did not know? I let it eat at me, yet an idea stuck for the remainder of the evening; maybe Joe’s gay.
That winter, I came full circle and assisted Joe with what I could on the musical at my high school alma mater. He left early one evening for a rehearsal of his own, and when I asked him what play, he responded with, Hairdresser On Fire.
Didn’t sound like anything I’d have any interest in seeing, so I asked if he’d be bothered by my not seeing it.
“No, it’s not the greatest of scripts.”
After the run of the musical, I picked up a local events paper. There was a review for “Hairdresser.” However, the headline included the words Queer Theater. I read the review, but I never said anything about it to Joe. I don’t recall anything from the review itself, but again that bizarre notion of Joe being gay was there, and this time I couldn’t quite shake it. However, despite my impression, and despite the ease with which I felt I could talk to Joe, telling him I thought he was gay when I knew he wasn’t could have been irreparably damaging to our friendship.
Another year went by; another high school musical came and went, and we found ourselves at Houlihan’s, drinking wine at the adult cast party. I have no idea how much we drank that night, but it was enough that we called another friend to pick us up and take us to another bar where we switched to beer. Upon our arrival, we each had a pint. At one point our friend excused himself to the Men’s Room, and Joe and I sat, sipping our beer, when he asked me if I had a quarter.
“I don’t know, let me see. Do you need to make a call? I’m sure Greg can drive you home.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Is it heads or tails?”
“Mike.” It was a statement. As if he was affirming for himself that he was indeed talking to me. That I was sitting next to him. In the next instant I became that kind of self-aware you remember from grade school when you didn’t do your homework and your teacher called you to the board. My world slowed down as if I saw every detail of an accident, seeing how to stop it from happening, yet powerless to do anything. If my world slowed, I can’t imagine what it was like for Joe when the next words seemed to crawl out of his mouth, “I am gay.”
Greg returned from the restroom.
There it was. Seven years of friendship. And this person at the bar sitting beside me . . . never . . . changed. He was still my friend. I don’t know how I responded outwardly. But I realized while I thought I knew Joe was not gay, I had back-story that told me otherwise.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what had just transpired. Did he really tell me he was gay? Was he just kidding? Is he trying out for a new role? Has he always been gay? I came to realize that one of my closest friends had to keep a secret from me for seven years. In doing so, he may have very well been keeping himself from the truth as well. I became more and more impressed by his courage, flattered by his faith in me, and happy for my friend. He didn’t have to lie to me anymore. He could be who he was.
That weekend, Joe and I met to have drinks and talk. In the space between when he told me and we were able to speak face to face again, I thought and eventually realized my adolescent anxieties of being labeled gay were so . . . adolescent. How arrogant does a heterosexual person have to be to think that a gay person would actively pursue someone who isn’t. Consider for a moment how humiliating it is for a heterosexual to be turned down by someone of the opposite sex. Now multiply that humiliation by the fear a homosexual must face in his or her daily life of intolerance, and add to it the burden of pursuing someone whose chemistry and biology just doesn’t work that way and therefore would have no interest, and you might begin to have an idea of how self-important a heterosexual is who fears a homosexual pursuing him or her.
When we talked, he told me he was just now telling his friends, though he had known for years. I was saddened by his personal struggle, and while I was happy for him, I became worried for him too, for far too many in our society feel it is in their power to judge and exact punishment on their fellow man because their fellow man is different from them. Think of the Fred Phelps’ of the world. Those are the people my God condemns. Joe and I have become closer though we live much farther apart. He served as best man at my wedding and is my first born’s Godfather.
These friends and their lessons taught me to be both more and less aware of differences and how unimportant they are. They inform how I behave and what I believe. Without them, I would not have been able to handle some of the most difficult challenges and questions I’ve faced as a teacher.
Before I had children, a guidance counselor where I teach told me she needed to speak with me privately. As I walked in her office, she asked me to close the door.
“Am I in trouble?”
“No. Sit down.”
“A student spoke to me in confidence the other day, but since it directly involves you, I felt you should know.”
“I don’t think this student is even in one of your classes, so it was a little strange.”
“Okay, who is it?”
She told me, and I informed her I knew the student from Student Council.
“Well he told me that you came out to him.”
“He also told me he’s shared this with another student.”
“Let’s just hold on a second. I don’t want to know any other details. First, my wife will be happy to know I’m not gay. Second, I don’t want you to tell him I am not gay, and if anyone asks, it’s nobody’ s business. I don’t want to know who the other student is that has been told that I’m out because I don’t want to feel the urge to correct him or her. My sexuality does not matter because it shouldn’t.”
A student asked me later that same year, “What will you do if one of your kids is gay?”
“One of them is.”
“You don’t have any kids.”
“My students are my kids until I have my own.”
While he thought about that and began wondering which of his classmates is gay I said, “I don’t know. Hopefully, it won’t change the way I look at my child. But as I’ve said all year, you can’t say with confidence how you would behave in any given situation unless you experience that situation. You can’t say you hate someone or something you don’t know or have never experienced. You never know, and if you think you do, you’re going to get knocked down a few pegs. I can say that I will love my child, and I hope I will not have to worry about how society will treat her or him. What would you do?”
I may not be perfect, but I’m no Archie Bunker. Though I may be just as curt, for if a student were to ask me that same question today, I have an even simpler answer: “So what if they are?”