THE GAY BURDEN

Dear Paul,
 
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!

— Kevin

DHARUN RAVI, THE LATEST IN HOMOPHOBIA

By Paul

Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student whose spying with a webcam on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, led to the roommate’s subsequent taking of his own life, has been sentenced to thirty days in jail.  He was also fined $10,000, given three years probation, and assigned to 300 hours of community service.  In all probability, he will not face deportation back to his native India.  The question remains: does such a punishment fit the crime? 

The gay community has been split on the answer to that question.  Some believe that it is far too lenient, that thirty days behind bars pales to nothing in comparison to the life of a young man.  Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, it is a safe bet to assume that Ravi will be alive and building his career and family.  His ex-roommate, however, not to put too fine a point on it, will still be as dead then as he is now, a life unfulfilled and cut too tragically short, due to a stupid and uncaring so-called prank that Dharun Ravi somehow thought would be a fun thing to do.  To call such an act, with such consequences, insensitive, as the judge did, is nothing less than a colossal understatement.   It was a horrendously callous, heinous, and hateful act maliciously perpetrated on an extremely private and highly sensitive young man. 

Ravi could have been sentenced to up to ten years, but the judge maintains that he took into consideration the fact that the defendant had no prior record and that normally charges of so-called bias crimes are reserved for violent assault or murder.  If Ravi’s actions were not a violent assault, and I suppose no one could reasonably say that they were, at least it could well be argued that the effect of his actions surely did turn violent in the end. 

I am not advocating here for a harsher sentence for this young man, as unfeeling, cold-hearted, and uncompassionate as I think he clearly was.  His actions were utterly stupid and vacuous, and as much as he claimed to have had no bias toward gay people, what he did clearly contradicts and gives the lie to what he says.  Even so, I do not see the good that would come from putting him in prison for a long period of time.  We can only hope that he will live his entire life with the memory of the evil he perpetrated on an innocent man, who had never harmed him in any way.  And if it is true that karma brings to all of us the fruits of our actions, good and bad, we can only assume that Dharun Ravi will in one form or another reap what he sowed.

On the side of Tyler Clementi, it does no good to wish that he had been able to better weather the storms of hatred and bigotry.  All gay people experience this kind of thing, perhaps not so directly as Tyler did, but still no one who grows up in the United States and who is gay, whether man or woman, can escape the sting of hostility, ill will, and homophobia.  Witness, merely just as the latest example, the bigoted and hate filled Baptist preacher in North Carolina, who recently declaimed from his pulpit that all lesbians and gay people ought to be put into a pen surrounded by electrified wire and left there to die.  These are the kinds of messages that LGBT people grow up with in this culture, and given the fact that the messages are so pervasive, so invasive, and so insidious, especially for young people it is difficult in the extreme not to allow them to penetrate to some extent. 

As one grows older, for the most part, one finds ways to ward off and deflect the hostility that so often surrounds us.  Indeed, it manifests itself in so many ways, large and small, that gay people are well advised to learn ways to manage and cope.  Some do so by hiding, or at least by dissimulating, and sad to say there are times when that may be the wisest thing to do.  On the other hand, if you live in a large city, especially on either coast, perhaps for the most part you can be relatively, or entirely, open.  Even so, the act of coming out is one that keeps on presenting itself.  Every time a gay person meets someone new, or is put in a new situation, a kind of decision has to be made as to how “open” he or she will be.  Just how safe is it?  What could the consequences be?  Is it worth the effort to do or say what a straight person might not even think twice about in the same circumstances?  Should we, for example, make reference to “my partner,” or “my husband,” of “my wife,” or would it be better entirely if nothing at all were to be said?  How am I feeling, how strong, how much energy do I happen to have right now, how much gumption, how much will, how much courage?    

These are questions that LGBT people face every day, sometimes multiple times a day.  For the most part (although with some very notable exceptions), it is true at least in this country that these are not life-threatening things, nor are they any longer likely to land anyone in jail (as they can in such countries as Uganda, or Zimbabwe, or even Russia).  All the same, they can be unrelentingly exhausting.  And young people in particular, who are just coming to terms with who they are and opening up to friends and family, as I have said, are especially prone to the insidiousness of it all. I do not doubt that it was this kind of atmosphere, as well as the distorted bias and bigotry of his roommate, that contributed to that terrible and fateful decision on the part of Tyler Clementi

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this story.  Tyler will not go on to flourish as a musician, or anything else, and for the rest of their lives his parents are going to somehow have to come to terms with the gaping wound of the absence of their son.  Dharun Ravi will go on to put this behind him, even if – let us hope – he will never forget what he did.  Perhaps the bigotry in this case was unthinking on the part of a senseless and delusional young man; perhaps it was more malevolent.  We will probably never know which.  In the end, however, it makes very little difference.  One way or another, a unique and promising life has been snuffed out, we are all the less for it, and homophobia has triumphed once again.