Gay rights debate misses real-life humiliations

September 17, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The big man wishes to be struck by lightning and killed at the earliest possible moment. He wishes the entire immediate world to remove itself and leave him in his humiliation. He is built like a lumberjack. He is built to beat up linebackers for laughs. He is standing in this miserable courtroom, with the life he has known effectively finished, because the police found him intimately engaged in the front seat of a car with someone who was a man.

What now? In Washington last week, the U.S. Senate votes down one measure to prohibit job discrimination against gays, and approves another measure barring federal recognition of gay marriages. And, in district Courtroom No. 1, North Avenue and Harford Road, it becomes clear that much of this talk overlooks an entire subculture of the lonely and the sexually torn.

"Quiet in the court."

He wishes his wife understood his confusion, but she's dealing with her own embarrassment and anger. He wishes his employer had been more understanding, but he wasn't. He's been dimly aware of this Washington political debate over gays and lesbians, but pushed it away as something that didn't quite concern him, with his overtly straight life. And now, standing at this defense table, he hears the whining of someone's baby behind him.

"Quiet in the court," the judge says again.

"Do you understand the procedure?" the big man hears his attorney asking. Procedure, what procedure? The baby's cry is so shrill. He remembers leaving his tidy suburban neighborhood to drive downtown. He hears people behind him in the courtroom now, defendants conferring with their attorneys. He remembers headlights pulling up suddenly on that darkened stretch of Calvert Street that night, and police getting out of their cars. He hears a public defender, moving along the rows of people awaiting trial, calling out a string of names. He feels his blood pressure rising, and leans his face down as if attempting to avoid detection.

"Do you understand?" his attorney is asking again.

Whatever. He nods affirmatively. A statement of facts will be read, a shorthand record of his humiliation. A deal has been made; a price will be paid, an admission that the thing he did was offensive to the community. All that remains are words intended to touch the judge's heart before sentencing.

"Your honor," the big man's attorney says now, "my client has a wife and two children. He's a steady worker."

In Washington last week, the politicians voted to protect their jobs. They hear from their constituents and listen to their queasiness. On North Avenue, the big man's job situation is a vision of future casualties. The big man's employer voted with the politicians when he heard the news.

"In a car," the big man said softly.

"With a guy?" the boss said.

"He's lost his job," the defense attorney is telling the judge now. The big man stares at the defense table in front of him. In Washington, the vote prohibiting job discrimination against gays was lost by one vote, despite emotional pleas that competent workers shouldn't be fired on the basis of their sexual habits.

"With a guy?" the boss said.

He found a convenient way to fire the big man and avoid all questions of discrimination: Never mind the homosexuality; crime was committed here, a sexual act in a car that was discovered by police, and we cannot have criminals in the workplace.

So the big man will have to find new employment. He will have to find money to support his wife and two children, because police in the city of Baltimore found time in the midst of homicides and crack dealing and junkies knocking over arthritic old people on the street to arrest two adults who were minding their own business.

The big man's wife stayed home this morning. The anger and embarrassment were bad enough when he told her about the arrest, but sharing it with strangers in a courtroom would have been too much. Generations of western culture, all the sophistication in the world, and we still can't stop peeking into people's private lives, and imposing our own sexual standards on others.

The public opinion polls say only about 40 percent of Americans support legally sanctioned gay marriages. The politicians know this. When the vote came last week, the count was 85 to 14 defending the sanctity of heterosexual marriage.

But this raises another question, which was ignored in Washington but arrives on North Avenue. It's about all those already in partnerships, where one spouse is gay and the other doesn't know it. It's about those with spouses and children, who wind up in the front seat of a car on some downtown street in their isolation and their secrecy and their sexual confusion, where the police find them.

Does Washington imagine it stops such things with something as puny as a vote?

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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