Another “Fever Swamp” Anecdote

G ewirtz’s post on “idiots” links this site to a bizarro world. Baldilocks’ point seems well taken: “Only a racist would automatically think of race whenever monkeys are mentioned.” These comments are projections. The deeper the racism/sexism/homophobic nature, the greater the assumption that others out there are much, much worse. But the inhabitants of that particular fever swamp reminded me of an anecdote I like to tell.

A few years ago, my husband sent me to Bread Loaf for a summer session. The whole thing seemed a bit too precious, but perhaps that was because I’d become middle-aged, as were almost all the tuition-paying attendees. And I wasn’t really a writer nor really writing.

I was assigned to a group taught by a New Yorker staff writer of a lovely style. He was hired when the New Yorker was famous for its profiles of quirky, interesting people. These people were seldom powerful nor famous, but they were treated with the respect and dignity they clearly deserved. I’d loved reading those profiles and especially his.

He started talking to me about my essay; it was about working on my master’s in Lincoln. The focus was the tensions between the life of the mind and that of the body, the desire for scholarship & procreation. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a great idea for an essay. I’d been unable to read “The Beast in the Jungle” that long winter because James’ Marcher hit far too close to home. Each semester some of my students feel the same way – I couldn’t speak to anyone for half an hour after I finished reading, one said last semester.

But it wasn’t just the powerful story: it was also my life. For instance, I had an apartment next to the Capitol and around which my gay friends cruised. They would drop by to warm up with tea or complain about their latest liaison or talk of novels. This was fine in its way – it gave me company. But I kept feeling my childbearing years slipping away. At this point the New Yorker writer pulled back and stared at me. When, he asked, are you talking about? Oh, I said, late sixties, then when I returned, oh, 1970-71. But that’s impossible, he said. Why, I asked. Well, Stonewall had barely happened in New York City, he replied.

Then he said, Well, in the Midwest, in Lincoln, surely any body who was gay would have been beaten up. Some were, I guess. But it wasn’t anything I remember happening to any of the people I knew. He stared at me and said, I know what someone in Lincoln would be thinking, you would say “gay” and they’d think of John Wayne Gacy.

I knew he had issues (he’d interviewed Gacy) but this seemed, well, bizarre. For one thing, we were talking about almost a decade before Gacy’s crimes were uncovered. That was one good reason that no one I knew would in free association to the word homosexual come up with Gacy. Of course, there were other reasons, like common sense, common humanity, and the fact that most people (in small towns or large ones) have met a variety of gay people by the time they reach any kind of maturity. Homosexuals include the guy down the street that lives with his mother and the guy that moved off to Omaha and comes back to high school reunions with his friend and, oh, I don’t know, Raymond Burr and a decade later maybe John Wayne Gacy.

He argued, you need to write about this subculture. No one could imagine it existed. He saw it as furtive, oppressed. Of course, in some ways it was. But he seemed to ignore the steady percentage of men who like men and women who like women throughout history. In the winter of 1970 a gay coffeehouse adjacent to campus was housed in the interdenominational church (that leaned, as I remember, Presbyterian). That year I took a homophile studies course. It tended to proselytize, but the teacher was Lou Crompton, one of the most respected scholars in the English department. He had his agenda, but we wanted to take his class because he was good at what he did. His book on Shaw won major awards, and his two later books on homosexuality are models of good writing, praised for their objectivity. He also founded the Gay Caucus at MLA which now awards a Crompton prize .

I didn’t find the class all that exciting, but it wasn’t because it was a sloppy, self-affirming approach; it was because I was foolish and thought spending an entire semester reading everything Christopher Isherwood wrote would be a good use of my time. Crompton had doubts. He was right and I was wrong.

But to return: this New Yorker seemed to believe that beyond the city limits, the country was full of bigots. This revealed a good deal about him. I felt sympathy, the interview was, I’m sure, traumatizing. That is you, I said, because of your experience, it is you who think of Gacy. He said, no. Vehemently he said, no, I’m right, most people would think that. And then he implied that the “most” he was speaking of would be of Nebraska. Surely, they who were not as enlightened as he would think of Gacy.

I grew up in a household in rural Nebraska where the New Yorker arrived every week and we read it pretty thoroughly. We also belonged to 4-H clubs and tooled up and down a 2-block main street. I wonder if many of those New Yorkers have the vaguest idea what 4-H is? This ignorance is not in itself important. But the fact that it lets them project on the red states the darkest shadows in their own minds is. We may find the blue staters a bit irritating, but we can’t ignore them – the culture they create is the air we breathe whenever we got to a movie or a concert, pick up a book or newspaper, turn on the television or radio. And we like a good deal of what we see.

Blue staters, however, remain in relative isolation. We are surprised, perhaps, when a Nebraskan on a t.v. show is outfitted with a southern accent. It gives us an idea of how the director of that show understands the rest of the country. But, confidently, such people will tell me what Nebraska is like. It is, they are sure, full of bigots. I suspect they would say, that is because a red stater is more likely to oppose gay marriage. But perhaps we might ask, is it because of their own unacknowledged opinions – dark shadows at the back of their heads – which they project on others. I’m not bigoted, no, they believe, those people over there are. But having reservations about gay marriage is not the same as thinking of John Wayne Gacy at the mention of the word homosexual.

8 thoughts on “Another “Fever Swamp” Anecdote”

  1. Do your readers know you block comments when they call you to task for silly positions? I post no vulgar comments. I simply twit silly positions taken outside your field of expertise, but your senseof free expressions seems unable top countenence a retort that shows aweakness in what you state. How long will it take to censor this from yhour readers? 12:50 EST

  2. Freddie, I don’t really understand your point. If your comments are being deleted, it may be because it is hard to see their relation to the discussions – ongoing and often among opposing viewpoints. Of course, others may find my post wrong or even offensive. Of course I, too, make broad generalizations that others may debate.

    However, while you may have a good point about this post lurking in your mind and perhaps I am the only one not getting it, it is not as clear as it could be. Critics have to be specific, thoughtful, and civil to be taken seriously. You can’t expect us to read your mind nor to put up with pointless abuse. The commentary on this site stays remarkably “on target” and remarkably free of ad hominem & ad populum arguments. I see that as a good thing. Freedom to publish does not mean the editor has no choice in what to publish. In the big marketplace of ideas this is only one forum. This particular forum prefers comments that stay on topic and that “privilege” arguments of the head. That is a good thing, it seems to me. It is not something for which anyone needs to apologize.

    And I was pretty thankful with the speed with which the porno links disappeared. That wasn’t censorship, that was an appropriate, policemanly perhaps, but also protective act.

    Also, we all make typos and we all make grammaticaly mistakes (I noticed some today in my post – mea culpa), but you would be taken more seriously if you proofed your comments.

  3. Ginny you are the nicest person on this blog.

    My response to Freddie’s ilk is more along the lines of “exterminate the brutes”.

  4. Carting out garbage is not censorship. If all you can do is dump your little pile of bile here and there, kindly go play somewhere else. You either have a reasoned point to make – calling people ‘silly’ has no value, sorry – or you don’t. This is private property. You’re a guest. You can either behave as such or get lost. Pick one.

  5. Freddie,

    I blocked your (other) IP because, despite your sense of humor, your comments have often been framed as personal taunts. I think we got the joke some time ago, and your continued self-appointed policing of our blog no longer comes across as amusing or constructive. You are welcome to take issue with our arguments and assertions if you can do so without personalizing your comments, but this is our blog and you are not welcome to annoy us gratuitously. If you can’t live without pulling our chain, do it on you’re own blog, not ours.

    If you want back in here, either let me know that you want me to unblock your IP, or post from your other account. But if you resume your trolling, taunting ways I’ll block you again and delete your comments.

  6. Right on. Although there is actually little chain pulling involved. Just another dweeb who seeks contrary opinion not to test his own, but to clobber it in demonstration of his imaginary superiority, courageously painting anonymous electronic graffiti wherever he can. It’s a wee sad but parasites are a fact of life.

  7. I can well believe your experience with the New YOrk writer.

    I lived in the Annapolis, Md area in the time period around 1967-1970. The Annapolis area at that time had a mix of liberals, people involved in the arts and their followers, a big gay population and a big red neck, very conservative population. I can vividly remember going with friends to the country and western bars (at the time Roy Clarke and a couple of his friends lived there) and I know that the gays would go up to the red neck husbands and dance with them and their wives and with each other and we would all have a wonderful time. As long as you realized that you could dance but that was all on both sides, there was no problem. The cab drivers in Annapolis were all lesbians and I can vividly also recall when one of them got a traffic ticket and had to go to court. We all got together and helped her get fixed up so she looked feminine because she had not worn a dress in 15 years and had never put makeup on.

    The people today seem to think that only in NYC, SF, Miami and LA did gays ever get along before Stonewall. They need to realize that the rest of the country got along quite well all that time without them then and still can. I grew up in a small town in central Ohio and even there we had some gays. We all knew who they were, but they were not shunned at all. In fact, one of them was the manager of the engineering department at a local factory.

    When are the blue staters going to realize that there is life in the red states without taking direction from the liberals.

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