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.