An ominous slip

March 13, 1995|By Robert A. Bernstein

THE CONTRACT with America does not specifically mention homosexuality. But many of its signers are now busily hyping a measure that amounts in effect to putting out a contract on the lives of millions of gay adolescents.

That's one of the cruel realities behind House Majority Leader Dick Armey's celebrated slip-of-the-tongue reference to Rep. Barney Frank as "Barney Fag." Mr. Frank accepted Mr. Armey's apology, and the immediate flap subsided. But the slur sprang from a Capitol Hill mind-set that plainly lives on, with ominous potential.

Mr. Armey belongs to a select congressional group with an anti-gay voting record. Last year, they voted to deny federal funds to schools that suggest in any manner that homosexuality is "a positive lifestyle alternative." The measure was narrowly sidetracked. But now, pressed by newly elected Republicans, Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House, has agreed to hold hearings on the issue. The measure is certain to be reintroduced, and is an odds-on favorite for passage in the new House.

It's a killer. For gay teens, their affectional orientation isn't a "lifestyle alternative." It's an innate and fixed aspect of who they are. For them, in a fiercely anti-gay social climate, the lack of factual information about homosexuality can be fatal. And most won't get that information at home.

Most members of minority groups can look to their families for understanding, support, guidance and role models. "You're a fine human being," the old black man tells his granddaughter on the television series "I'll Fly Away." "You're as good as anyone else and don't you ever let anyone tell you different."

Gay kids don't hear that kind of thing. As one told me, "We can't come crying and say, 'The straight kids made fun of me at school today.' " First-person accounts of growing up gay almost always include periods of black despair and suicidal thoughts. Gay teen-agers kill themselves in disproportionately high numbers, and legions of them self-destruct more indirectly through the avenues of substance abuse or promiscuity. That's why their need for support -- for knowing they can be both gay and OK -- is often literally a matter of life or death.

And it's also why Mr. Armey's slip, made during a radio interview, is so scary. For it is symptomatic of a significant Capitol Hill animus. To be sure, Mr. Armey -- in apparent sincerity -- expressed deep regret for the remark. "There is no room in public discourse for such hateful language, and I condemn the use of such slurs," he said on the House floor. So the good news is that particular slur would appear to be no longer publicly acceptable.

The bad news is that however unintended the slur, it presumably could only have come from a homophobic predisposition.

Mr. Armey's anti-gay credentials are in fact second to none on the Hill. He has refused, for example, to sign a statement that his office will not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

And his homophobia even takes precedence over normally sacred conservative principle. A case in point is his vote to bar federal funding for private organizations that boycotted the Boy Scouts of America because of its anti-gay policies.

In other words, Mr. Armey goes beyond merely insisting on his own right to discriminate. He thinks the government should protect others who do the same thing -- and never mind if that interferes with the cardinal conservative principle of keeping government out of private matters.

Normal standards of value, it seems, tend to dissolve in the white heat of prejudice. That's the point of what might be the nastiest, most profoundly tasteless specimen in a collection called "Truly Tasteless Jokes": "What do you call a black millionaire physicist who's just won the Nobel Prize? Answer: N----r!" Mr. Armey has shown us another application of this prime principle of prejudice.

The Almanac of American Politics, published by the respected National Journal, is a sort of Capitol Hill version of Holy Scripture. Its current edition calls Barney Frank "one of the smartest members of the House and one of its most gifted legislators . . . also one of the most intellectually honest politicians of his time."

But Mr. Frank is also one of three openly gay Congressmen. So what do you call a gay congressman who may be the most talented and principled public servant in Washington?

Unfortunately for millions of innocent kids, Dick Armey provide the tasteless short answer, and it reflects a truly ominous political mood.

Robert A. Bernstein, national vice president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, is author of the forthcoming "Straight Parents/Gay Children: Keeping Families Together." He writes from Bethesda.


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