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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Sometimes Hate Can be an Ally

By Steve Charing

Hate has been a human emotion since the beginning of civilization and will always be there. It’s been the root cause of much violence that is directed towards people and nations on religious, political, racial and ethnic grounds. Nothing can eliminate it. The only thing that can be done is to try to contain it so it doesn’t lead to tragic destruction. Sometimes that has worked, sometimes it hasn’t.

Hate has also led to violence directed at lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals. The LGBT community, since the murder of Matthew Sheppard, has sought to include crimes against lesbians and gays in hate crime legislation pending in the U.S. Congress and here in Maryland. These laws would tack on additional penalties to perpetrators of such crimes. In attempting to achieve this as well as other gay rights advances, one of the key allies in the struggle has been, ironically, hate itself.

When Matthew Sheppard was brutally murdered in Laramie, WY in 1998, the issue of hate was thrust into the world’s collective consciousness. To that point there had been untold numbers of gay bashings in the U.S. (and many since). But none struck a chord like the murder of Matthew Sheppard.

Here was a tiny waif of a guy, a 21 year-old college student, who barely cracked 100 pounds, who was pistol-whipped and beaten senselessly by two young thugs just for being gay. With this highly publicized tragedy hate entered the national dialogue, and law-abiding citizens saw in real and dramatic terms and images the results that destructive, pointless emotions run amok can produce.

It took Matthew Sheppard’s slaughter to add clarity to a nation that was by and large indifferent to such events. Shocked and sensitized by this horrific act, people actually began to notice the tragic consequences directed towards gays and lesbians for being who they were. Helping the cause unwittingly was the psycho Rev. Fred Phelps and his band of hatemongers from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS (www.GodHatesFags.com).

Toting signs proclaiming God’s hatred towards Matthew Sheppard and all faggots in general, Phelps and his cohorts had the indignity of showing up at Matthew’s funeral—in the presence of his grieving family and friends as well as an observing and saddened public—to add more salt to the never-to-be-healed wounds. For those who didn’t see the murder on its own as a reason to pause, this macabre theater staged by Phelps and his fellow extremists in spitting into the grave of a young man who was rendered unrecognizable by his assailants, may have won a few more allies to the LGBT cause.

Not only does this group hate gays, but they also hate America. They have thanked God for the tragedy of September 11, dragged the American flag along the ground, and referred to Laura Bush as a "gay pimp" among other absurdities.

A few hundred miles southeast in a story that was covered by Anne Hull of the Washington Post and recently carried by Nightline, an 18 year-old named Michael Shackelford from Sand Springs, Oklahoma, decided to come out to his mother and sister. Eventually the folks in the rural town just seven miles outside Tulsa, but which culturally seemed like a thousand miles away, got wind of this anomaly in the "Buckle of the Bible Belt." His mother desperately wanted him to change lest they would not be in Heaven together. The preacher in the local church also tried to publicly impart the "truth" to Michael about homosexuality, but to no avail.

Although he was a huge Merle Haggard fan and passionately loved his truck—not the typical gay stereotype—Michael was harassed in school and refused to go to the bathroom all day to avoid being cornered and beaten by his schoolmates. It was a rough go for young Michael. In the town he was known as the "gay kid," "the queer."

Then came the ubiquitous Rev. Phelps to the rescue. Upon learning of this gay kid in Oklahoma from the Washington Post series, he brought his fellow cronies and picketed the church because the pastor failed to cast him from the flock.

Fliers from Phelps began appearing on fax machines all over Sand Springs. "God hates Michael Shackelford" and "God is not mocked! God Hates Fags & Fag Enablers!" According to Dan Morris, producer of the Nightline program, "the faxes were like a bomb being dropped in the middle of town. The community felt under siege. Fear, anger and apprehension blanketed the town. Suddenly the topic no one cared to talk about could not be avoided. What transpired was remarkable and surprising, not least to Michael Shackelford."

What happened is that the town confronted Phelps and the picketers and shouted back for them to go home. Hate was not welcome in Sand Springs. In the reddest part of a red state, the citizens supported one of their own and repelled the outside interference by an extremist group promoting hate. A counter-sign read, "Don’t mess with our homos."

Rev. Phelps may not make it out here on January 27, when a sizable group of local ministers and others sharing his intense bigotry will be demonstrating in Annapolis against same-sex unions. Their goal is to show our state legislators that gays are sinners and deserve no rights.

The kind of hatred manifested by Phelps and his ilk is the perfect ally in trying to convince the public how much more needs to be done to achieve equality for the LGBT community. We can only hope that this extremism and hatred will expose them as the fringe of our society and that the legislators will not be swayed by their assault on fairness and justice.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Good Riddance to a Homophobe

The sports world may have mourned the death of Reggie White but the gay community lost an enemy

By Steve Charing

I admit that I wasn’t exactly mournful concerning the demise of former pro football great Reggie White, who died suddenly of a respiratory failure the day after Christmas at the age of 43. The former defensive end, who retired in 2000, had set the NFL record for sacks of a quarterback (later surpassed) during his career that spanned 15 years with 3 teams, most notably the Green Bay Packers.

That he was one of the most dominating defensive players in the game is indisputable. His sudden death brought sadness to those who follow the game—players, fans and sports journalists who were quick to remind people of his character and involvement off the field. He was also an ordained minister and had been dubbed the "Minister of Defense."

I had watched Reggie White play a lot through the years; he was a star in a game that so effectively showcases its stars. His speed, power and determination were admirable, and he was the consummate team player. But when I think of Reggie White, I didn’t see a giant of a man clad in green and gold sporting number 92 swooping in on a hapless, vulnerable quarterback. Instead I saw quite a different image that was incredibly disturbing. So when he died, I felt no sense of loss as many others did.

For what I saw was a bigoted homophobe, and to me, that overrides his on- or off-field accomplishments.

Being a celebrity brings its rewards: money, fame and a platform from which to speak. Many children look up to their sports heroes and cling to their every word. As a successful pro athlete, Reggie White also attracted the attention of corporate sponsors believing his endorsements of their products would encourage others to spend money on them and thus increase their profits. So when Reggie White addressed the Wisconsin state legislature in March 1998 on a variety of subjects, his words weren’t as innocuous as most others who stepped before the microphone. In that chamber, and echoed in subsequent interviews, he spoke the words softly, but they rang out loud and clear.

On that fateful day of March 25, 1998, Reggie White accused the U.S. of going away from God by allowing homosexuality to "run rampant." He said, "Sometimes when people talk about this sin they've been accused of being racist. I'm offended that homosexuals will say that homosexuals deserve rights. Any man in America deserves rights, but homosexuals are trying to compare their plight with the plight of black men or black people. In the process of history, homosexuals have never been castrated, millions of them never died. Homosexuality is a decision. It's not a race." White went on, "People from all different ethnic backgrounds live in this lifestyle. But people from all different ethnic backgrounds also are liars and cheaters and malicious and back-stabbing."

White explained that God had created different races for different reasons. In a shocking display of racial stereotyping he said, blacks are gifted at worship and celebration, while whites are good at organization. "Hispanics were gifted in family structure, and you can see a Hispanic person, and they can put 20, 30 people in one home," he said, adding that the Japanese and other Asians are inventive and "can turn a television into a watch."

He persisted with his onslaught against gays in interviews following his speech. And he joined other anti-gay radical religious groups to repeal a nondiscrimination ordinance, which protected gay people from being fired or thrown out of their homes for being gay. White appeared in anti-gay ads in the Washington Times and USA Today wearing the Packers uniform, which violated league rules.

Reggie White’s comments drew rebukes from many in the media, prominent civil rights leaders such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King as well as glbt organizations.

"White's stardom gives him influence over millions of youth and adult fans," said Joan M. Garry, then Executive Director of GLAAD—Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "I am shocked that he would irresponsibly use his voice in such a damaging manner. White's assertion that being lesbian or gay is a malicious ‘lifestyle’ akin to dishonesty and cruelty is bizarre, wrong-headed and factually inaccurate."

His statements probably cost him a sports analyst position with CBS for which he had been under consideration.

Although White later attempted to apologize for the ethnic stereotyping remarks, he did not back off from his anti-gay comments. According to the Associated Press regarding a 20/20 interview, "White said he stands by his remarks regarding gays. ‘I am going to speak the truth and I am going to speak out against things that's hurting our children, that's killing off our people,’ White said. ‘If people think that's a contradiction and that's hate, they need to take them up with God, not with Reggie White.’"

Reggie White also said that there is no place for homosexuals in professional football; that it would diminish the "manliness" of the game. This type of rhetoric has fostered homophobia in sports at a time when the glbt community was hoping for a breakthrough where a notable athlete would come out and open the closet doors for others gays and lesbians.

Esera Tuaolo, who also wore a Green Bay Packers uniform in addition to several other teams but was not a teammate of White’s, was one of three gay NFLers to come out of the closet—after hanging up their pads. All felt they would have been hated by teammates had they chose to come out during their playing days. Reggie White’s outspoken rhetoric all but assured the closet doors will remain closed in the near future.

The power of celebrity can be awesome. Sadly, Reggie White’s fans, including so many children who looked up to him, were influenced by his venom. He poisoned the atmosphere that may have allowed a gay athlete to come out of the closet. He reinforced the myth and stereotype that gays and lesbians make a "decision" to be homosexual. He spoke as if God spoke directly to him; that same-sex marriage was an affront to God. He was the classic homophobe, only larger in stature and celebrity.

Football and its fans mourned Reggie White’s passing. But his death was their loss, not ours.