I deeply appreciate your May 23rd article “Dharun Ravi, The Latest in Homophobia.” Your essay is very intense, passionate and undeniably true. I especially admire the way you were able to capture “the gay burden” in words – what it feels like to live as a gay person with the constant requirement to decide how “out” to be in every social moment, and how exhausting that is, especially when one is in a part of the world where being gay is anathema, as it is here in this ultra-conservative backwater region where Robert and I live deep in the woods. But even in big progressive cities, as you point out, it is necessary for us gay people to decide how open to be in the course of daily life. Just mentioning my “partner” at lunch with a trusted client in the course of normal conversation, is a HUGE deal! So I usually don’t do it, because the consequences are potentially economically devastating. I did many creative problem solving projects and consultations for the national offices of the church in which I was raised, until I happened to mention in one event over 15 years ago, that many of my closest friends had died of AIDS. I have not been invited back since then. Even progressive clients don’t want to take the risk of being seen as supporting an openly gay “vendor.” In corporate America today, gay people are absolutely invisible and silent. When gay associates happen to identify one another in meetings and board rooms, they automatically stay as far away from each other as possible, in order to avoid inadvertently outing one another. Gay is NOT okay in corporate USA.
We gay people live with psychological violence daily, and you did an excellent job of defining that as well as the potentially disastrous hazards of such a life for sensitive young people who may just not feel that they have the stamina and courage to live with this “gay burden” day after day for a whole lifetime. Things have gotten both better and worse for young gay people. I knew I was gay from the very early age of 10, but there was no way for me to know that there were lots of other gay people in the world. Everything I read or heard about homosexuality defined it as a psychological pathology — an illness that had to be treated. Since I didn’t know any other gay people, I concluded that I must be one of 10 or 12 such freaks in the entire world, and I hoped I would outgrow my “illness.” But I didn’t outgrow it, and by age 14 I was literally crying myself to sleep every night over the realization that I could not possibly marry and have a family with my “condition.”
As a 14-year-old child, I was devastated by the thought that I would have to live my life alone, without love. As I think back to that agony, it is easy for me to understand why some young people take their own lives during these very sensitive and vulnerable teen years. I did not consider suicide, but in desperation I wrote to Ann Landers and poured out my heart. She (or her staff) wrote back that I should seek psychological treatment for my problem. So I did. At 15 I could not abide the agony any longer. I told my parents that I was gay and wanted to be straight so that I could marry and have a family, and that I would need psychological therapy to achieve that goal. Unlike so many kids, I was incredibly fortunate to have very understanding parents. They scheduled weekly counseling for me immediately. The first small town Midwestern counselor I met with was clearly homophobic. He sneered and leered at me throughout the entire first session. I went home and told my parents that I would never speak to that man again, and that my counseling was over unless they could find me a more sympathetic ear. I have always been proud of myself for firing my first therapist. The one they found next for me was perfect. He was a Rogerian, which meant that he did not believe a counselor should speak at all in sessions. Well, I didn’t know what to say, so we sat in silence for the entire hour week after week for six months! I don’t know why, but after six months I started talking. I talked and talked and talked. For six months I talked a blue streak, and at the end of one full year I had talked myself into feeling just fine about being gay. The Rogerian approach had worked for me! I said “Thank you very much. Good bye.” But how many kids are as lucky as I was?
Today things are much different for gay kids. They know very well that they are not alone and that there are millions of gay people in the world. There are gay clubs in high schools and gay support services everywhere to help scared and conflicted kids. But those kids still get the very strong message from our culture that it is not okay to be gay. Just yesterday the Illinois state senate failed by one vote to pass an anti-bullying bill, and the reason given was that the bill would “promote a pro-homosexual agenda.” There was no mention of bullying gay people in the bill. It was a generic bill about bullying. Today’s gay kids experience more pressure in many ways than you and I did. When we were in school 50 years ago, nobody talked about homosexuality, and nobody was identified as gay. Well… almost nobody. The coach showed our gym class homophobic films on “Health Fridays” and talked about how homosexuality was “sick.” And the principal’s boy ran around the locker room naked, with his flaming red hair and a raging hard-on. But even that was just interpreted as a hilarious prank! Today, gay kids are identified early and harassed by their schoolmates and others, long before they have had a chance to sort out their own feelings and attitudes and approaches to their sexual identities. Most of them don’t get the chance I had to spill out their hearts to a Rogerian psychologist for a year. And some of them crack under the pressure. Dharun Ravi’s incredibly cruel actions drove poor Tyler Clementi to suicide because Tyler could not live with the forced exposure and humiliation. Much of the Illinois legislature apparently thinks that kind of bullying should be allowed.
I have been wondering lately what I might have achieved in this life if I had not been seen as a gay man, because, let’s face it, being gay is generally NOT an asset in most human pursuits. That’s why it is such a farce when people call it a “choice” or our “sexual preference.” A man once asked me why I made the “choice” to be gay. I responded with a question: “Can you tell me when and why you CHOSE to be straight?” Who would choose this kind of life when they are 14 and terrified?! I can assure you that I would have preferred to have lived my life on a level playing field, thank you very much. Would I have been fired from my position as art director for a church publishing company after ten years of loyal and effective service? Probably not. I believe my sexual orientation was most likely the secret weapon that my persecutors used to get me sacked finally after several failed attempts. Would I have been passed over for management and administration roles in the various positions I held? Probably not. Might I have been offered other more lucrative and powerful professional jobs in the world? Maybe so. As things stand, I AM gay and it IS known, and I have accomplished quite a lot in my professional life, despite carrying this “gay burden,” as have you. I’m happy with the way things turned out, and I feel relatively proud and satisfied with my public professional history as it winds toward a close, and you should feel extremely gratified by all of your stellar accomplishments in academe.
What remains now for both you and me is autonomous creative expression, loving our husbands and friends, contemplation, meditation, gardening and exercise. That is certainly a wonderful place to arrive at in one’s life. But I can’t help wondering if I have chosen to live at the dead end of a dirt road in these remote woods partly to escape the daily grind of the “gay burden.” The squirrels, frogs, trees, wildflowers, streams and ponds do not require me to decide “how openly gay I will be today.” I can just …BE… And that feels like a tremendous luxury and freedom. At the same time, of course, I have to acknowledge that Robert and I are surrounded outside of our private paradise by people who would want to do us harm if they knew that we are a couple. So, whenever we interact with them, I am “Old Uncle Kevin,” and Robert is my “nephew.” They are more comfortable with this lie, even if they happen to know the truth. Around here, any other approach would be suicide. And here’s the rub… even relatively accepting people tend to be uncomfortable with our reality. Many are willing to be tolerant as long as we don’t rub their noses in our lives. And unfortunately, rubbing their noses in it consists of engaging in very common everyday behaviors like kissing one’s lover goodbye or holding hands by the bonfire or mentioning the crazed cardinal that we saw through the window while we were having coffee and tea in bed this morning. We cannot do or say those common, ordinary, everyday things… and we don’t. We wouldn’t think of it. We value our safety. But gay children and young people are much more exposed and vulnerable. Once they are identified as gay in schools and communities, a certain segment of the population will persecute them just for being who they are, like Mitt Romney did 45 years ago when he instructed a gang of his bully friends to forcibly hold down a terrified and screaming gay boy, so that he, Mitt Romney, today’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Presidency, could violently cut off the gay boy’s long bleached blond hair and publicly humiliate him. Needless to say, even if, God forbid, Mitt Romney becomes U.S. president, he will never be MY president, for this and so many other reasons. We need a president who, among thousands of other deeds of courageous moral leadership, will help gay kids to survive the burden of growing up homosexual – a president who might even support gay marriage. Oh!… We already have that president. Let’s keep him. Then all we’ll have to do is persuade him to save the world from Global Climate Change… Easy!