Sunday, September 26, 2004

# Posted 7:55 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

GROWING UP GAY IN AMERICA: OxBlog is second to none in its commitment to promoting and protecting gay rights. But I'd still rather have journalists report on the issue fairly rather than taking my side.

Dominating the front page of today's Washington Post is the first installment of a four-part series on growing up gay in America. The continuation of the story fills up two entire pages inside the front section.

The protagonist of today's installment is a young gay man in Oklahoma named Michael Shackleford. Like so many young gay men, Michael has had to endure ridicule, intimidation and vandalism. But those facts alone should speak for themselves, instead of being embedded in a narrative designed to portray Michael as a hero and those around him as mindless thugs.

Here's how the Post describes its four-part series:
In the courts and in popular culture, gays in America experienced an unprecedented push toward the mainstream over the past two years. But far beneath the surface, away from the spotlight of the historic advances and conservative backlash they detonated, are the ordinary lives of young people coming to terms with their homosexuality. [No permalink -- this quote is from a sidebar on Page A17]
Now, if the opposite of a "historic advance" is a "conservative backlash", then there is no question about which side the Post is taking in this debate.

In one of the early paragraphs of Michael's story, correspondent Anne Hull writes that
While the rest of the country is debating same-sex marriage, Michael's America is still dealing with the basics.
In other words, rural Oklahoma is full of ignorant hicks. Ignorant hicks who probably don't read the Washington Post. But even so, the cause of gay rights would benefit from even-handed coverage of such areas that takes the views of its residents seriously rather than dismissing them as backwards and irrelevant.

To the Post's credit, it invested considerable resources in telling Michael's story:

With the Shackelford family's permission, The Washington Post spent hundreds of hours following Michael over the past year as he came to terms with being gay, a journey that paralleled Oklahoma's fight against same-sex marriage.

The events and direct quotes in this story were witnessed by this reporter.

Reading the article, however, one gets the sense that the author spent hundreds in search of evidence that Michael is the victim of his neighbor's ignorance. And it seems that none of those hours were spent trying to understand why Michael's neighbors consider homosexuality to be anathema.

After observing that Michael's America is still "dealing with the basics", Hull observes that
There are no rainbow flags here. No openly gay teacher at the high school. There is just the wind knifing down the plains, and people praying over their lunches in the yellow booths at Subway. Michael loves this place, but can it still be home? What if the preachers and the country music songs are right?
In other words, the problem is Christianity (and possibly country music). Without question, there is a strong relationship between conservative Christian beliefs and antipathy toward homosexuals. Yet instead of helping us to understand this relationship, Hull seems determined to expose Christian ignorance:
The damnation mixed with the bluest skies, so beautiful and round. The greater Tulsa phone book has 13 pages of church listings; there are 133 churches alone that begin with the word "First." One Tulsa church that bills itself as a "hardcore, in-your-face ministry" constructs an elaborate haunted house each Halloween where live actors depict various sins. Last year's spook house featured a gay male pedophile...

One day in PE class, a good-looking preppy guy on the bleachers strips off his T-shirt in the hot gymnasium. Before Michael can catch himself, his eyes drift. Stop looking at me, the other boy tells Michael in a voice loud enough to humiliate. This is the turning point at school. His secret is out.

"He was wanting to kick my ass," Michael later recalls. "I told my dad about it. He said, 'I'd kick your ass, too, if you were looking at me.' " Officially, ass-kicking is not allowed on school grounds since Oklahoma adopted anti-bullying laws... [Whereas schoolyard violence was previously encouraged. --ed.]

It was a Sunday morning that Janice Shackelford will never forget. Michael had a friend staying over. Church was starting in an hour, so Janice knocked on her son's bedroom door. "Time to wake up, guys," Janice remembers calling. She tried the door, but it was locked. Next to the door were some blinds hanging over a glass panel. Janice peeked through and saw Michael and his friend on the floor, kissing.

She ran across the house to her bathroom. She thought she was going to vomit. She wanted to scream but could only sob, so uncontrollably that when she called Michael's father, he thought Michael had been killed in a car wreck. Somehow Janice still went to church that morning, where she broke down and told a friend that she'd discovered her son lying with another male.

For the next month, Janice barely slept. At work, she'd be shuffling papers at her desk and become choked with emotion. The vision of Michael on the floor haunted her. As the shock eased, she launched into action. She walked around Michael's room reading passages from the Bible, forcing Michael to listen. She researched Exodus International, the Christian organization that says it can "cure" homosexuals.
To Hull's credit, she does portray certain rare instances of Christian tolerance. After discovering that her son was gay, Janice Shackleford
Called her insurance company and requested the name of a Christian counselor. To her amazement, the Christian counselor didn't tell Michael that homosexuality was wrong. Janice found a second counselor. This one said that he couldn't be "pro or con" when it came to homosexuality. She felt as though the mental health industry was against her until someone gave her the book "Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth," which asserts that gay activists successfully pressured the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to remove homosexuality as a mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Suddenly, Janice realized why she'd hit so many roadblocks. "The gay movement had gone into the politics and changed everything," she says. "Now it's not even a disease or sickness."

No one seemed to understand that Michael's eternal life was at stake. Janice feared that Michael would go to hell and be apart from her in the afterlife. "I'm afraid I won't see him again," she says, her voice breaking.
This passage elegantly shows how intense homophobia can co-exist with unconditional love. Only by understanding this relationship better can we hope to overcome the tragedy and heartbreak that such homophobia generates.

I hope that the next three installments in the WaPo series demonstrate more of this sort of sensitivity towards the complex motives behind homophobia.
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