Brian Shea meets an old friend for lunch. He leaves the restaurant a wiser man.
Compared to Russia’s purge of homosexuals now escalating to a fever, the hysterical fear of the “gay mafia” on conservative radio here in the U.S. seems an almost Socratic exchange of ideas. But many American men remain spectators to the struggle and debates that shape the lives of gay American men. Practically speaking, children, work, and paying bills on time keep us sufficiently distracted from sustained interest in the rights of gays or anyone else. Only when these issues directly intervene in our routines can they demand that we choose between ambivalence and commitment.
I was similarly immersed in my own practical routines some years ago when I met an old college friend for lunch. I hadn’t seen him in a decade and discovered that we’d been living two blocks from each other for years. I had regretted losing touch with him and was glad to see him again.
As we sat down, I noticed that he now had a different air to him. In our school days, he had always seemed slightly unsure of himself, even socially awkward. But on this day, years later, he was relaxed and confident. Something had changed and I almost wondered if he’d come into money. As we talked, he told me that he was gay–a fact unknown to me–and that he had yet to find a way to tell his parents. But he had found himself.
Like many straight men, I’d always supported gay rights. But when some firebrand insisted that my support was a vote for Satan and his legions, I rarely offered vigorous counterpoints. Such anti-gay zealots sought victory, not understanding, and like any sensible witness to a fight, I generally vacated the area.
But now, a good friend had intervened in my daily routines that could no longer distract me from events larger than myself. If my friendship meant anything, I had to more carefully consider my feelings towards homosexuals. I was tolerant, yes. But like most straight men, I wasn’t the first to greet them when they entered the room either. In the presence of gay men, I’ve shared two instincts with even the more open-minded heterosexual men I’ve known. And even now, they are still with me in some measure.
First, a root part of our minds causes us to shift uncomfortably in the presence of obviously gay men. The double take on seeing two men hold hands or kiss. The change in body language when I pretend not to notice that they’re standing closer than two American men normally would. I do it. I still do it. We all do it. Even after being raised by two progressive, open-minded parents, there it is again. The double take.
Second, there is a reflexive fear among many American men of being perceived to be gay or effeminate in any way. Not long ago, a colleague of mine pulled me aside in the office, looking in both directions to ensure no other could hear his question. I noticed him glance down at my clothes.
“I don’t want you to think I’m gay,” he said. “But I was wondering where you buy your suits.”
This was a man who had survived combat and I had never questioned his masculinity. But his first concern was that I might think he was gay. More fundamentally, what if I had thought he was gay? Would I not answer his question? Send him to the wrong tailor, perhaps?
But after lunching with my old college friend, these common moments now echo with his voice in my ear. “They’re scared of me,” his voice says. “Not some abstract archetype. Me. Are you?”
My friend’s very existence no longer permits me to answer these questions without rigorous examination. My views now represent how I would have my country treat my friend, joining the national chorus of what we call acceptable norms that articulate how far my country is willing to protect him from harm. In Russia, that chorus has devolved to a medieval mob. Both my friend and my country are worthy of better.
When encumbered by ignorance and a lack of direct exposure, even my support for my friend had relied on my uninformed assumptions, however benevolent. My friend and I are both fond of 19th Century American history and have spent hours discussing it. One figure from that era, Ulysses S. Grant, has been a regular protagonist in our imaginary recreations of the battlefield. The general’s words are instructive to those who, like myself, seek to understand my friend’s universe so that I may better inform my judgements: “The distant rear of an army engaged in battle is not the best place from which to judge what is going on in front.”
I have distilled for the straight man six fundamental truths from the front: my friend and my experience of knowing him. Some of them will be idiotically obvious to homosexuals. Others confirm what I suspected to be true but had never bothered to ask a homosexual to confirm or debunk. Either way, they reflect real lessons from a real man, not a cartoonish stereotype that still defines the callous vitriol of his liberty’s critics. Like many of us, these critics speak with presumed expertise, but I suspect they count few if any homosexuals as friends. And as General Grant reminds us, “the most confident critics are generally those who know the least about the matter criticized.”
1. NO, IT ACTUALLY ISN’T A CHOICE
Some observers still hold that my friend’s homosexuality is a choice, which permits them to absolve Nature from creating what they despise. But watching the lines of dread form on my friend’s face when contemplating “the talk” with his parents, I can report that homosexuality is not a choice. My friend, to whom his family is unspeakably important, did not choose a “lifestyle” that could cost him the love of a mother and father he adored. His sexuality is no more a choice than the color of his eyes. He is my friend, and if he says it’s true, it’s true. Period.
2. MY STRAIGHT MARRIAGE REMAINS UNTHREATENED
I am told that my heterosexual marriage is a moral Alamo, surrounded by hordes of homosexuals preparing to overrun it. But as my gay friend joins my wife and me for dinner, I detect no interest on his part in compromising the sanctity of my vows. In fact, I detect little interest in my marriage at all. He is pleased that I have found a good person to share my life with. It also appears that concerns are unfounded that some slippery slope to chaos will result should gay marriage be fully realized. In states where gay marriage has been recognized, I am unaware of people proposing to house plants or their favorite pet, unhinged from the standards of normality by their states’ validation of gay love.
In fact, as I reflect on the current divorce rate among my heterosexual friends, many of whom are emotionally unstable from being raised by miserable and very straight parents, I wonder if homophobic pundits really do worry about homosexuals destroying the sanctity of marriage. If they represent a majority of Americans, as they claim to, perhaps they worry not that gays will destroy marriage but in fact save it. Given our own track record, it’s difficult to imagine how homosexuals could do any worse a job. And if, after being marginalized and openly persecuted by society and its laws, my friend stills wants to be married, he will have overcome more challenges than most of us have when we proposed to our own partners. He might even teach us something.
3. UNDERSTANDING IS NOT A PREREQUISITE FOR TOLERANCE
As a straight man, I can say with certainty that I do not understand or relate to attraction to other men. But there is no evidence that I need to do either in order to respect the rights of another human to love as he would wish. You don’t need to, either.
I also do not understand the experience of being a woman and my wife would note that I have a strikingly limited understanding of the female mind. But a walk in her proverbial shoes is not a prerequisite to recognizing her right to vote or earn equal pay for equal work.
The history of America records man’s ability to grant freedom even to those deemed unfit by the baser angels of his nature. As the nation grew, he was replaced by the children of those previously denied the fruits of liberty, making fewer still those who remained marginalized. One need not be gay to understand that America’s story of freedom’s expansion didn’t end with the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights. It had just begun, and my friend can show you how far we have yet to go.
4. GOD’S WORK MUST TRULY BE YOUR OWN
A man who looks to scripture to show him the way is a man who makes choices. As the hoarse debate among the faithful of this country demonstrates, there is a biblical passage that divinely bolsters almost every side of every position, if one looks hard enough. Over a century ago, many of the first abolitionists were devout Methodists who saw slavery in biblical terms: slavery was a sin and all those who perpetuated it sinners. Just as many devout Methodists pointed to scripture that suggested slavery was sanctioned by God. All held specific passages as keystones to their faith over other passages that contradicted or qualified their choice. Yet, they chose.
What makes the man is not the passage he looks to, but why he chose it. Perhaps it was a favorite of one’s parent or inspirational leader and speaks to the individual with a clarity transcending all others. Or, perhaps his choice was fueled by the prejudice of his age or nation. His choice allows him to internalize contradiction or otherwise look past the troublesome questions it may pose. And this is natural to the human mind; all make ideological and philosophical choices that may not survive rigorous scrutiny. Yet, we all cling to our truths.
But if a man chooses scripture to condemn my friend’s sexuality or even his very existence, he should admit himself capable of hubris and examine what really drives him to condemn another man. And, what drives him to choose a passage that allows him to do it. History is replete with tyrants who believed they were the hand of God and all found convenient biblical passages that licensed them to make the claim. But the Epistle of Jude warns us of dangerous men who know not why they act beneath a facade of certainty: “Yet these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals–these are the very things that destroy them.”
5. THEY’RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE
Opponents of my friend’s rights continue their search for ways to make homosexuality simply go away. Advocating archaic “cures” or exclusionary legislation, they assault gays in the manner of a desperate gardner whose domain has been invaded by weeds. But after centuries of persecution, one would think that gays would have vanished by now. There are species of finches that have evolved and surrendered to extinction in less time that homosexuals have walked the Earth. It’s looking very likely they’re here to stay, gentlemen. It is time to embrace the revelatory possibility that your views are simply wrong.
6. THEY JUST MIGHT HAVE DONE MORE THAN YOU TO EARN THEIR RIGHTS
I descend from a long line of soft-bellied civilians who have never served in the military. We have earned no glory on the battlefield and count no medals to our name. My gay friend, on the other hand, gave a decade of service to his country. His father did the same, as did his father before him. And, they did it for you.
If you genuinely believe that his sacrifices for you and your country still exempt him from the rights you enjoy daily, let me know. The three of us can meet for lunch and I will pay the tab to watch you twist yourself into semantic, political, and religious contortions to justify your position. I’m confident you will leave as either a certified fool or a changed man.
To find out which you may be, sometimes all it takes is lunch with an old friend. And if you’re not too worried about how it will look, I’ll even pick up the tab.
photo: geishaboy / flickr