Casual anti-gay 'humor' helped spur the march


April 27, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

"Hey, man," shouted the guy in the red tank top to the tall man in the blue T-shirt during a basketball game yesterday. "Where were you Sunday? We were trying to get a game together."

"He didn't show up because he was marching," laughed another player.

We all chuckled. In retrospect, though, the joke wasn't funny.

The banter on the court referred, of course, to Sunday's march on Washington for gay rights.

But the implication, the hook that made the joke, was that the man in the blue T-shirt was gay -- and further, that being gay is bad, something to be ashamed of.

The player in the blue T-shirt isn't gay, by the way. He didn't march Sunday. It was just part of the gentle ribbing that happens on the basketball court.

But I realize now that this particular kind of humor, this casual denigration of homosexuality, is part of what compelled gays to march in the first place.

"Yes, yes, you are absolutely right," says a 33-year-old Baltimore man who is gay.

"Part of the thing about being homosexual is that you're always hearing things like that. You might hear your nephews calling each other 'faggot,' or radio talk-show hosts mentioning the 'sodomy lobby.' There are all of these jokes and all of this hostility that is almost like part of our everyday life.

"Look at this," he exclaims, showing me the front page of yesterday's Washington Times newspaper, which carried the banner headline, "Queer '90s."

"I find this offensive. We're not 'queers.' Can you imagine a major newspaper slamming any other minority like this?"

I first talked with this man last year when he set up an interview for me with his companion, who is dying of illnesses related to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

My source goes on to explain why he doesn't want to be identified in print. "My own mother has a lot of hostility against gays. That's one of the main reasons I don't want you to use my name.

"It would kill her if she knew that her own son was one of those 'dirty, immoral people' she is always talking about."

"At least if you are black or some other minority, you don't hear a lot of the bigotry because people hide it around you," he continues. "Or if you do hear it, you have a moral recourse, because society, in general, has accepted that bigotry against minorities is wrong. But that isn't true about being gay."

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people marched to promote gay rights. They hoped to rally support for some of the high-profile issues confronting gays: their right to serve openly in the military; their right to be guaranteed protection from discrimination in housing and employment; and the need for more spending for AIDS research and treatment.

But the march was about more than politics. Gay speakers emphasized the necessity of being proud, not ashamed. And supporters from outside the gay community called for an end to prejudice.

Perhaps one of the more important moments during the march occurred when Ben Chavis, the newly appointed executive director of the NAACP, spoke out publicly on behalf of gay rights. This was an act of courage, considering the black community's traditional hostility to homosexuality. Some civil rights leaders have taken particular exception to the linkage of gay rights with civil rights, based on the very dubious argument that race and ethnicity are natural conditions while homosexuality is not.

In the past few years alone, Washington has been host to a number of marches and mass protests, on behalf of blacks and women, the poor and the disabled.

The sponsors may change but the goals seem to remain the same: People want to be treated with compassion and dignity and respect. They want protection from the bigoted and the ignorant. They want equal opportunity in this, the so-called land of opportunity.

These do not seem like particularly outlandish goals to me, especially if ours is as wise and compassionate a society as we would like to believe. But the compassion of American society appears to be mostly myth. And the marchers, they just keep on coming.

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