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Homophobia - still just under the surface

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Dumb, ignorant, drop-out losers killed the young gay man Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998. Americans were genuinely horrified, but urban gay Americans, in particular, took the murder as a sign that they had made the right decision when they moved from the country (or, more likely, the suburbs) to the big city. They were safer in Manhattan, or Dupont Circle, or West Hollywood, or South Beach.

But gay people put too much stock in smartness, sophistication and "culture" as signs of tolerance and acceptance. Like black Americans and Jews and other minorities, gay people are fools if they think their highfalutin' heterosexual friends and family don't struggle with the same distaste, or contempt, for gay people that led to Matthew Shepard's death.

In graduate school, at Johns Hopkins, among a tight-knit group of poor wannabe novelists, I won a hand of drunken poker and muttered a corny, self-deprecating joke. A friend of mine, who'd just lost $2 or so, did an exaggerated impersonation of me and my joke -- made his voice sound, um, really "gay."

His routine lasted about 20 seconds, but it felt, to me, like time had stopped. My friend's face had changed -- it was like the Looney Tunes cartoon in which Tweety Bird is transformed into an enormous ugly monster.

When the impersonation ended, I laughed along with everyone else in a sort of "Gee, what a fag I am" camaraderie and we played on. Later in the evening, I made some kind of excuse and left the party and walked home and vowed to get revenge against the mimic, my friend.

In the morning, though, all of my anger had dissolved. I turned the other cheek. After all, the mimic was one of "my" people. He was well-read, sophisticated, from a world-class city. Maybe this was no different than him making fun of a Southerner's drawl, a Long Islander's brogue, a Parisian's purr. He was just making, well, sport of me. The way a buddy will. And if I wasn't man enough to take it ...

In his riveting, provocative, over-the-top, messy explosion of a novel, "A Density of Souls" (Talk Miramax Books, 274 pages, $23.95), Christopher Rice (yes, the son of Anne) perfectly captures the sense of victimization that so many gay people feel at the hands of straight people -- especially straight people they once trusted as friends.

The book is so angry I had to read it in short bits, and its best scenes so sexually explicit I can't really paraphrase them in this newspaper. But it makes a persuasive case against trusting your neighbors -- even if they come from your social class, go to your expensive school.

Gay people have long comforted themselves with an idealized image of the gay hater, the "homophobe" (though I hate that word, because I do not think gay bashers actually "fear" gay people; I think they feel an almost genetic sense of revulsion). The thinking is that the gay hater is ignorant, unenlightened or maybe even an unacknowledged homosexual him- or herself. Why else would he or she screech ani-gay epithets in the face of a minority that's clearly got some political and cultural power?

Heck, doesn't he know that NBC is firmly behind "Will and Grace" and George W. Bush let a gay guy speak at the convention? In some smart circles, gay people and straight people, "together," mock guys who are "too gay" or women who are "too butch." It's a badge of honor to let a straight friend ironically use an epithet when he hangs out with gay people.

But really, in some ways it's easier to deal with the gay-hating mob. Give me a withering, shrill harridan like "Dr." Laura, who shouts, "The debate over gay rights -- Rights. Rights! Rights? For sexual deviant, sexual behavior there are now rights? That's what I'm worried about with the pedophilia and the bestiality and the sadomasochism and the cross-dressing. Is this all going to be 'rights' too, to deviant sexual behavior? It's deviant sexual behavior. Why does deviant sexual behavior get rights?"

Give me George Finley, the 58 year-old Ocala, Fla., man who beat his whimpering dog -- a poodle and Yorkshire terrier mix -- to death because "he felt the dog was a queer-type dog and it made him angry."

Give me the Sudan, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, where homosexuality carries the death penalty. In cases like these, the danger is clear. It's not insidious. It's not seductive. I don't let my guard down.

Just don't give me a politician like Bill Clinton, who accrues enormous support from gay voters and wastes them with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." I don't want a mother like Lynn Cheney, wife of VP candidate Dick, who is openly embarrassed of her lesbian daughter's sexuality. And I don't want a brother like Vladimir Nabokov, creator of a charismatic heterosexual pedophile in "Lolita," who harbored an amazing, enduring contempt for gay people, including his younger brother Sergei, who died of dysentery, starvation and exhaustion at Neuengamme, a labor camp near Hamburg, toward the end of the Nazi reign.

The novelist Lev Grossman presented the overwhelming case against Nabokov in the May 17 edition of the online magazine Salon. He writes, "Nabokov simply didn't like homosexuals. Even after Sergei's death, [he] used homophobic slurs that make the modern reader cringe ... [He] considered homosexuality to be a hereditary illness. Nabokov's homophobia is in fact one of the dirty little secrets of 20th century literature, on a par with T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism."

Grossman traces the roots of Nabokov's anti-homosexual attitudes to his family -- to his father, who "argued for the decriminalization of sodomy ... [but] personally considered homosexuality to be 'deeply repugnant' to any 'healthy and normal' person," and to his Uncle Ruka, who may have "fondled" young Nabokov.

But, Grossman points out, "however distasteful he found it as a person, Nabokov as a writer found homosexuality perversely irresistible, and gay characters turn up in almost every one of his 17 novels."

And never, ever in a positive light. Even in "Bend Sinister," when Nabokov writes about a courageous hero who speaks out against a brutally oppressive regime (mirroring his brother Sergei's bravery under the Nazi occupation), he makes the hero a heterosexual man, and makes the dictator, who orders the hero's death, a homosexual. At the Neuengamme camp, Grossman writes, "the guards singled out homosexuals for particularly harsh treatment ... [but] Sergei's conduct ... was nothing less than heroic." After war's end, survivors would telephone the Nabokov family "out of the blue" to talk about Sergei's bravery, but Vladimir could barely find a kind word for his brother.

As the New York Times reported on Aug. 16, one of the most hated men in America right now is Richard Hatch, the conniving corporate trainer on the CBS reality show "Survivor." He's the man we love to hate, a snake. He formed a strategic alliance with a Midwest truck driver, a Colorado river guide and a crusty old former Navy seal. Rudy, the old guy, refers to Richard as "the queer" and "the homo," and admits that his old Navy buddies will ridicule him for spending so much time with Rich on the island.

Week after week, I wanted Rich voted off the island, but he just kept surviving. In "confessions" to the CBS cameras, he admitted that he has no real feelings for the members of his alliance, that he doesn't really trust them -- but he needs them to survive. Wary, smart, more than a little cold-hearted, wouldn't it be sad if Richard Hatch knew best how to survive as a gay man in mainstream America?

Ben Neihart's first novel was "Hey, Joe." His second, "Burning Girl," has just been published in paperback by Harper Perennial.

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