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Ron Belgau

November 1997

"You will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free."

Today is National Coming Out Day. (I know that by the time you read this, it will be November, but I'm writing this on October 11, so I'm right, even if I seem wrong when you're reading it.) Anyway, I thought I'd reflect a little bit on coming out.

"Coming Out" usually means telling someone you're gay. But for me, the first time I told someone I was gay was less important than deciding for myself that I would no longer live a double life. The biggest coming out is deciding not to wear a mask.

I grew up in a Republican family; and long after I realized I was gay, I kept on pretending to be a "Super Republican" so that no one would suspect I was gay. But at the end of my junior year of High School, I finally decided that even if I didn't tell everyone I was gay, I wasn't going to go on pretending that I agreed with the Republican Party. I was going to tell people the truth about what I thought and damn the consequences. It was a good change. From that day on, I have never lied about being gay.

This month, I found a piece of that Truth, printed on blue paper, preserved in plastic sleeves, and entitled "Pain and Prejudice."

I was a high school debater, and my senior year, I made it to state semifinals with an oratory (an 8-minute prepared persuasive speech) which had to be kept secret from my coach - a speech about gay rights, written immediately after the 1992 Presidential elections.

This month, as I was going through some of my stuff at home, I came across the script for that speech. (For those of you who don't like suspense, the script was the blue paper thing referred to in paragraph 4.) Reading it brought tears to my eyes, not because it is powerfully written, but because it reminded me of powerful emotions in my past -- the demons of loneliness and prejudice.

I couldn't -- or at least didn't -- risk telling people I was gay. But as I re-read the speech, I was amazed at just how much of myself I had risked putting in it. So I thought I'd share it. I decided not to change the speech, even though if I gave it now, there are some changes I would make, because I've matured a lot and the world has changed. But I think it's more real to leave it unchanged.

So everyone, fasten your safety belts -- we're going back in time.

The time is January, 1993. President Clinton's first move after taking office is to begin the process of allowing gays into the military. Battle lines are being drawn. The forces of good and evil are mobilizing. Darkness has fallen over the face of the land. In the midst of the darkness a ray of light appears -- a young man (that's me!), still seventeen, steps in front of a small audience, clears his throat, and begins to speak . . .

Pain & Prejudice

In recent weeks, we have all witnessed the uproar that erupted when President Clinton vowed to overturn the ban on gays in the military. His action, a cardinal sin against the military's macho male mentality, ignited a firestorm. In Wilmington, North Carolina, three marines entered a gay bar, dragged Crae Pridgen from the bar, and brutally beat him while chanting "Clinton's going to pay." The FBI has refused to prosecute the three men on civil rights charges, saying that homosexuals have no civil rights protection, and as far as the Feds are concerned, this was nothing more than a barroom fight. This mentality, though widespread, is morally reprehensible. You see, the attitude that allows this kind of discrimination is not all that different from the attitude that allowed Jews to be murdered in Nazi Germany and allowed African Americans to be oppressed in our own country.

"But the situations are completely different. A person's race is obviously not a factor in what sort of person they are. But homosexuals live a different lifestyle from normal people."

But how different is this attitude? Did the Germans believe that Jews were completely equal to the Aryans? Of course not. Hitler supported so-called "scientific research" purporting to prove that the brain structure of a Jew was closer to that of an ape than to an Aryan. One of his lieutenants described Jews as "bearers of disease, black-market operators, and furthermore unfit for work." Did the bigots in the American South believe that African Americans were equal? Wrong again. African Americans were characterized as mentally inferior to Caucasians, and morally less important. All of these are blatantly false. All of these were accepted stereotypes at the time. All of these are prejudiced statements based not on fact, but on popular myths. All of these led to the genocide at Auschwitz and Treblinka, and the oppression in our own South.

Prejudice. All of us are prejudiced in one way or another. And though it is not in the Ten Commandments, nor a horseman of the apocalypse, prejudice in one of the leading causes of pain in our society, and every society. Prejudice is easy to define - just say the word slowly. Pre-judge. Prejudice is judging a person on some simplistic external, rather than looking at the person themselves. Prejudice is also synonymous with injustice. If we judge a person simply by the clothes that they wear, by the color of their skin, or some other characteristic, without understanding who they really are, then we cannot render just judgment, and will hurt that person. You see, prejudice kills. When we do not know people as people, but just as members of a group that we dislike, we are far less likely to worry about harming them. I'm sure that the three marines from North Carolina are good husbands and loving fathers, but when they see homosexuals not as people, but as evil animals, they will show no remorse for attacking them.

"But of course, today, the situation is completely different. Each and every one of us has spent days at the library, and interviewed professional psychiatrists, attempting to find out about homosexuality. We're not prejudiced. We have overcome those silly stereotypes against Jews, Native Americans, Asians, African Americans. We know that a woman can do a job just as well as a man. And we also know that gays are a terrible threat to everything that America stands for, that they're pansy queers, bent on corrupting our young children and staring at our military heroes in showers."

I ask again: are we all that different? Do the homophobes in the military and elsewhere even know what a homosexual person is like? A generation ago, many in the military didn't want to serve with African Americans. It took just a little exposure to the courageous African American fighting men to teach those prejudiced men of yesteryear that skin color had nothing to do with the color of a man's valor. Today, Colin Powell heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a testament to our military's change of attitude. If the men in the military were exposed to homosexuals, and thus forced to know them as human beings, would they change their attitudes?

How well do we understand homosexuality? Often, those who oppose homosexuality argue that it is a choice, and that gays could change if they wanted to. This is ridiculous. No man who is attracted to women as most men are would, of his own free choice, risk losing his job, his civil rights protection, and all family ties to give up sex with women and have sex with men. Nor is it likely that homosexuals can change their orientation. If an edict came down from God decreeing that heterosexuality was from now on evil and homosexuality the only acceptable form of sexual expression, how many of us could simply say, "OK. No problem. I'll just give up my girlfriend and start being romantically attracted to men." If you really look, it is blatantly obvious that sexual orientation is not a choice.

One of the most frequently cited arguments for keeping gays out of the military is the threat by many in the military to walk if any "faggots" are allowed into their units. However, if a soldier threatened to walk if he were forced to serve with a "nigger," I hope he would be told that his kind was not welcome in the military. This raises an interesting question: if there are morale problems, will they be caused by the gays in the military, or by the homophobes? Which group is more morally wrong? A liberal democracy, one supposedly guided by the principle that everyone is equally endowed with certain rights, should not allow the military's bigoted mentality to take precedence over equality and fairness.

Now I'm not saying that we must turn around and say that homosexuality is wonderful. It is perfectly legitimate for someone to object to homosexuality on moral grounds. But it is a well-accepted moral principle to separate hate of sin from hate of sinner. The former is acceptable. The latter is not. Now I, like many people, am somewhat repulsed by the idea of two men having sex. On the other hand, like most people, I am somewhat repulsed by the idea of my parents having sex. But I can deal with my parents' sexuality, and I should be able to deal with others' homosexuality. To allow my squeamishness about one aspect of a person's lifestyle to make it impossible for me to relate to that person in any way is, quite simply, wrong. Each and every one of my friends falls short of my ideals in some way. I also fall short. To be human is to be imperfect. But my friends and I forgive each others' failings, and there is no excuse not to extend this same courtesy to others. We may not be thrilled to death by the image of two men spending their whole lives together, loving each other, holding hands, kissing, and sleeping together. But love should always be better than hate, and this image should be more appealing than the image of three of America's finest, men who have pledged to preserve, protect, and defend the freedom of every American, dragging another human being out into the streets and brutally beating him for who he is. This ought not to be an issue of homophobics against homophillics, but an issue of prejudice against justice.

When he attacked the TV sitcom Murphy Brown, Dan Quayle decried the "poverty of values" upheld by the "cultural elites," and claimed that this lack of values contributed to the Los Angeles Riots. Ironically, during the Fundamentalists' campaign to pass Oregon's Measure 9 and Colorado's Amendment 2, anti-gay violence in those states increased markedly. In the name of values, prejudice gave hate a chance. Dan Quayle was right. A "poverty of values" will lead to violence. But he was also wrong. Our society's problems are far more deeply rooted in lack of understanding and prejudice than in TV shows like Murphy Brown.

Ironically, if we are seeking an anti-prejudice theme, we need look no farther than the Republican Party, home in 1992 to the infamous family values campaign. In 1988, before the Christian Coalition had coalesced into a politically significant faction, and when the Moral Minority was still a wail in the wilderness, George Bush called for a kinder, gentler nation. Although as an economic policy this has proven to be less than ideal, as a moral policy, it is highly appropriate. If we all tried to understand others as they really are, society would be much fairer, and humanity's future would be much kinder, gentler -- and safer -- than humanity's history.

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Well, anyway, that's the speech! Let me know what you think, write me about other things, whatever. My e-mail address is rbelgau@u.washington.edu.


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