Recently, Tim Hardaway declared his hatred of gay people. Gay people should be thankful.
Let me tell you a story. It's about a man named Bull Connor. In 1963, he was the police commissioner of Birmingham, Ala. Back then, Birmingham was pleased to be considered the most segregated city in the South. Then civil rights demonstrators under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to town. Mr. Connor directed the city's response.
When you see those famous images of dogs attacking unarmed marchers, and firefighters directing high-pressure hoses at men and women singing freedom songs, you are seeing Mr. Connor's work. He was a hateful cuss, but there was a useful purity in his hate: The sheer violence of his response to the civil rights movement brought international condemnation and irresistible pressure for change.
Segregation was, for many people, still socially respectable in that era. Politicians defended it with honeyed euphemisms like "state's rights," and preachers assured their flocks that it was God's will. So you could be a segregationist and still feel good about yourself, still feel moral.
Mr. Connor inadvertently made that impossible. How moral can you feel when a guy is loosing dogs on children in your name? Mr. Connor stripped segregation naked. He made people face it for what it was.
Mr. Hardaway, a retired jock who once started at guard for the Miami Heat, has now done the same thing for gay bashing. No, he didn't turn dogs or hoses on anybody. But he surely stripped homophobia naked.
Asked during a radio interview by my Miami Herald colleague Dan LeBatard for a comment on John Amaechi, a former NBA benchwarmer who recently came out of the closet, Mr. Hardaway did not have the brains to lie or deflect the question. Nope, he was blunt as a brick.
"I hate gay people," he said, "so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."
Any questions? Me neither.
There is something bracing in the matter-of-fact clarity of Mr. Hardaway's declaration. He cut through the clutter of weasel words and half truths that traditionally surrounds homophobia, showed us what lies behind the euphemisms ("traditional values") and claims to speak for God.
"I hate gays," he said. Period, end of sentence. The statement had to it the same flat clarity of Bull Connor, straw hat on his head, cigar clenched in his teeth, siccing dogs on children.
No, Mr. Hardaway isn't the first person to speak so stridently in public against gays. The lunatic Fred Phelps comes to mind. Still, you could always ignore Mr. Phelps precisely because he was a lunatic. Mr. Hardaway is not. He is, or always seemed, a decent guy. Which makes his words all the more hurtful.
He has apologized, of course, but that surely has more to do with public reaction and the loss of lucrative endorsement deals than any true change of heart. Anyway, that's his business.
Ours is this: Like segregation before it, homophobia is, for many people, still socially respectable. So one hopes that one byproduct of Mr. Hardaway's outburst is that it will become less so. That we will be forced to face it for what it is. It would be a nice change.
So often, we use words to distance ourselves from what we feel, to hide our true meaning, even from ourselves. Mr. Hardaway used words to say exactly what he felt, and it is possible to abhor what he felt and yet appreciate that he does not make you guess or infer.
Think again of Mr. Connor, screaming obscenities under an Alabama sun. To hear him, to hear Mr. Hardaway, is to know that you have finally come down to it, finally met the beast that lives behind euphemism and weasel words.
It is ugly, but it is also, at long last, truth.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.