Last week, in an opinion piece at my Slate column, I dove headfirst into a political cesspool. In what some referred to as an angry rant against Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy and his company s funding of antigay causes or in what I would prefer to call an act of unbridled reason I sought to move the focus away from all the frivolous accusations of Christian persecution and onto the countless at-risk or closeted gay youth undoubtedly following this story. Many of them, rest assured, have in recent days sat in a bustling Chick-fil-A nodding along as their masticating parents gave them a stern lesson on traditional family values, and learned, in the process, exactly how much more their folks appreciate a privileged multimillionaire s tasty fried chicken and his right to free speech than their child s right to happiness.
I m rather apolitical by nature, so I was surprised by my strong reaction. It sounds selfish it is selfish yet had Cathy and his Chick-fil-A profiteers been financially trampling underfoot another subjugated group instead of gays and lesbians while invoking God, I d have shaken my head bitterly but I probably wouldn t have felt that same irrepressible urge to lash out against their recalcitrant brand of Christian arrogance. Still, it s not like I m not exposed regularly to this kind of brazen prejudice. It s ubiquitous. So why did this bizarre chicken incident get so under my skin? Upon reflection, seeing all those eager hordes of Americans coming out in full daylight, so comfortably proselytizing, laughing, and bonding over their shared revulsion for gay people (which is to say, me) reawakened fears long-buried.
In 1985, when the full scope of the AIDS epidemic and its scourge particularly upon gay males became widely known, I was nine years old. And in the upper-middleclass suburb of Washington, D.C. where my family lived, this new disease, the gay plague, was suddenly the talk of the town. My parents weren t very religious (my mother was a secular Jew, my father lazily Lutheran) but almost everyone else was. One summer evening, at a block cookout, I sat on a garden bench near a group of men convened before a barbeque pit and pontificating about this AIDS thing. They concurred that, in all probability, this was just God s clever way of getting rid of the queers. On television, I saw belligerent housewives and middle-school football coaches, glinting crucifixes around their necks, screaming antigay epithets at supporters of Ryan White (a gentle, eloquent adolescent with hemophila who d acquired HIV through a routine blood transfusion) while his single mother, trying to enrol her son in the public school, endured the wrath of an angry, frightened mob in her Indiana town. Rock Hudson s grim death riveted the public s attention, and with this attention came that horrible onslaught of jokes about fags and AIDS that saturated my elementary school cafeteria and playground; the residue of which still lubricates the carefree banter of chuckling bigots to this day.
All of this made my burgeoning homosexual feelings more salient to me than they otherwise would have been. The menacing ethos of those times, in which it was made abundantly clear to me that people like me were not welcome in this world, pushed a dim awareness of my sexuality prematurely into consciousness. What I didn t understand, however, was that gay men were dropping like flies not because they (we) were bad, but because they d engaged in a form of unprotected sex that just happened to make them especially vulnerable. In fact, the various routes of transmission never even occurred to me. To my mind the mind of a fourth-grader gays were simply being struck down one by one by a mad God. And the only way to detect our essential evil, to reveal what he already knew, was to analyze our blood. So imagine my relief when, after having my blood drawn for an annual check-up, the doctor miraculously missed this terrible secret of mine and didn t have to break the unspeakable news to my family. (It would be more than a decade before I dared breathe a word of it.) Still, I was so sick with worry over my inescapable fate that while awaiting the doctor s public pronouncement of my worst nightmare, I threw up in the phlebotomist s chair.
Such old, unaddressed wounds, I gather now, never healed properly. Those 1980 s-era memories, along with several more decades of simmering in a toxic religious nation that has viewed me consistently and without apology as wilfully rejecting God by choosing not to be attracted to the opposite sex, is the backstory to my angry rant. From the time I was nine years old, I have felt, to my very bones, a palpable climate of Christian scorn, loathed not because of what I ve done, but because of what I unalterably am. If this is not the Christ-like version of Christianity that you adhere to, I believe you, but know that your gentler version has lost the public relations campaign to that of your demonizing evangelical brethren, whose message of intolerance continues to be received much more clearly by the majority of gay youth.