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The Absurdist Drama of Being Gay in Texas

DALLAS. — Dallas -- Being gay in Texas is pure theater of the absurd. When I first moved to Dallas in 1974, I discovered that I was defined as a lawbreaker by statute 21.06 of the Texas Penal Code. Then, in 1982, 21.06 was overturned by a federal court: instant rehabilitation. But in August, 1985, a higher court overruled the lower one, and I was transformed overnight into a criminal once again. The Texas "Nuremberg Law," similar to those in nearly half the other states, remained in force until December a year ago; it was overturned, this time by a state district court in Austin. At the beginning of April, the Texas attorney general appealed. At present, I can't figure out whether I'm a criminal or not.

Texas has no monopoly on absurdity. If my partner and I were to set out by car from Seattle, meandering like tourists through the Rocky Mountain states, we could find ourselves criminalized, decriminalized and recriminalized seven times before reaching our home in Dallas. The same would hold true if we began in Boston.

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For lesbians and gay men life anywhere in the United States can seem like a script by lonesco -- if not a remake of "Friday the Thirteenth." When it comes to homosexuality, public discourse and public behavior are often dominated by ignorance, illogic and fear. Facts are ignored, rationality banished. Stupidity and mean-spiritedness routinely come to the fore.

Take violence. In Texas, documented anti-gay violence is the second-highest in the nation. One victim, nearly beaten to death in Dallas by three men wielding fists, a billy club and a baseball bat, described his ordeal: "I had my skull split open, my teeth knocked out -- everything between my ankles and my skull was either broken or bruised. All they said the whole time was, 'You -------- queer!' "

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Yet, not long ago the Texas legislature defeated a "hate crimes" bill. The reason: A majority of lawmakers feared going on record against gay-bashing. (A similar bill has been bogged down in the New York State legislature for years, and for the same reason.) Finally yielding to citizen pressure, the Texas lawmakers passed a hate-crimes bill late last summer, but only after the lurid gay-bashing murder of a young Houston banker.

When a community-college freshman was convicted a couple of years ago of the execution-style murder of two young gay men in a Dallas park, "hanging judge" Jack Hampton sentenced him to only 30 years in prison, explaining that the victims were "queers" and they were "out cruising for teen-age boys" -- a claim which, aside from being irrelevant, was never substantiated during the trial. A special master, appointed to investigate Judge Hampton's remarks, declared the judge free of anti-gay bias.

Or, take AIDS. Texas ranks fourth among states in the number of reported AIDS cases (some 13,000, with over 8,000 deaths). During a recent session of the Texas legislature, a memorial resolution expressing sympathy for AIDS casualties and their families passed the House, one of many courtesy items enacted without debate. Upon reflection, 55 members -- more than a third -- clamored to have their names removed.

Sometimes Texas-style bigotry descends from theater of the absurd to pure farce. The Dallas Police Department's personnel-policy manual specifies that applicants for the police force must not "have engaged in deviate sexual intercourse . . . [or] sexual contact with a member of the same sex since age 15," it reads, nor -- and here's the kicker -- in any sexual contact with "an animal or fowl since age 17"!

Noted one gay businessman: "It's obviously an accommodation to all the farm boys in Texas."

Texas does not stand alone. Archaic sodomy laws, condemned more than 15 years ago by the American Bar Association, are still used as pretexts in many parts of the country to deny parents custody of their children, revoke professional licenses and withhold security clearances. Disease models of homosexuality -- long discredited by the major psychiatric, psychological and medical associations -- are still used to rationalize those same laws. Exemplary servicemen and women, ferreted out in McCarthy-style witch hunts, are still expelled from the military. Lifelong mates are still barred by hospitals from a partner's death bed because they are not "family." Gay teens, socialized all over America to loathe themselves, still kill themselves three times more frequently than their non-gay peers.

The persistence of homophobia despite its irrationality has many causes, but the most important of these by far is the institution of the "closet." The closet constitutes the ultimate absurdity of being gay in America today.

"Stay in the closet," society tells gay people, "and we'll leave you alone." And so the vast majority of gay women and men, to avoid stigma and harassment, to keep our children and our jobs, lead double lives -- a public life in which we are presumed to be heterosexual, a private life in which we are allowed to be gay. Yet this very closet, touted as a shield against homophobia, is the single greatest cause of its perpetuation.

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Because most of us are invisible, people do not know who we are: Their stereotypes survive intact. Because most of us are invisible, people do not know that we are everywhere, in all walks of life, in all age groups and all races and social classes, in virtually all extended families. We are all, gay and non-gay alike, caught in a vicious cycle: Ignorance breeds homophobia, TTC homophobia breeds the closet, and the closet breeds ignorance. In October, in the heart of affluent Dallas, another gay man was murdered, shot in cold blood as he ate a hamburger in the park; his lover was wounded in the leg and face. In early November, Dallas elected a new mayor. Of all the major candidates, he alone had declined throughout his entire campaign to come out in support of gay and lesbian civil rights.

In Texas, as in the rest of the country, the absurdist drama plays on. Sometimes it is even comical -- until you remember all the scarred, all the dying, all the dead. Theater of the absurd, after all, is our age's knockoff of tragedy.

William Beauchamp teaches French at Southern Methodist University.


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