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Joe Cutbirth

Joe Cutbirth

Posted: May 21, 2009 04:23 AM

Happy Birthday Harvey Milk (and thanks for giving us hope)


The defining moment in my adult life came inconveniently about six months after I got the first big break in my journalism career. At least it seemed so at the time.

"You ought to look at our (pro-gay) position papers on gays and lesbians, if you want to see something that'll really make you sick," a Texas spokesman for the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket said off-handedly one afternoon during a telephone interview.

It was the fall of 1988. I had arrived in Austin, Texas, about six months earlier and was covering the state capital for a regional wire service. Michael Dukakis had picked Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate, and with George H. W. Bush at the top of the Republican ticket, no reporters in America had it better than those in the Austin press corps.

The only job I ever really wanted - in that deep way you think your life will end if you don't get it - was to cover Texas politics for a major newspaper. So, that comment was especially tough for me, but it wouldn't have been except for Harvey Milk.

I was in my early 20s and trying to figure out life a decade earlier when Milk was in his heyday. He was an unlikely hero, but his 1979 assassination hit gay men of my generation hard. We didn't know what to make of it, and the discrimination and violence that followed as the AIDS epidemic spread pushed many of us toward rethinking Milk's calls for everyone to kick down their closet doors.

I fumed as I drove home that autum day; then, half-way there, the click happened. I turned around and headed for Dukakis headquarters. The flack was surprised when I showed up, but he welcomed me into his office. My clammy hands closed the door and my armpits dripped perspiration. I was 32 years old, and I was hyperventilating like a fifth grader walking to the front of the class to read a book report.

But I managed to speak my truth.

"You know (I called him by name), earlier on the phone that stuff you said about gays and lesbians making you sick? Well, I came down here to tell you I'm gay, you're a bigot and you make me sick."

He looked stunned. I continued.

"And I'm not going to have any words with you about this now or later, because I can't be an issue in a campaign I want to cover. I just wanted to look you in the eye and tell you I'm not ashamed of who I am."

I walked out with no fanfare and no response. (That's it, almost verbatim. The words and the order I spoke them are as clear to me two decades later as they were the next day. You never forget a moment like that.)

"Well, you've done it now," I thought. "You're going to be 'the queer' in the press corps. You'll have subtle empty seats beside you all year." The demons grew louder at home and into the night.

"There went your chance ever to get hired by one of the big papers or by the Associated Press. Why did it have to happen this soon? Why couldn't you have just gotten to know people a little, first? Are you really this self-destructive?"

I hardly slept, and I arrived early at work the next morning. My phone rang at 8 a.m. It was Jack DeVore, Bentsen's cigar-smoking press secretary with the unmistakable ratta-tat-tat machine-gun laugh. Only DeVore wasn't laughing.

"How bad did he offend you?" he asked.

No "hello." No "Hey Cutbirth." Nothing. In 20 years before and after, I never saw or heard DeVore that serious. So, I responded in kind. "How bad would it have offended you, Jack?"

DeVore dodged. "Well it's complicated and we can't fire him, but we're demoting him, and we're thinking about making him publicly apologize to the gay caucus in a few days, and we'll issue a statement then. And Bentsen wants you to know how terribly sorry - how deeply and personally sorry - he is. He's traveling today, but if you want, he'll give you a call this afternoon."

(The guy apparently made some internal calls that night to begin damage control, though it wasn't necessary.)

I had enormous respect for Bentsen. I didn't always agree with his votes, but he epitomized the concept of "senatorial" in my mind. He was a giant in Texas politics and an incredibly decent man. Bentsen knew me professionally, but not personally. Devore was a different story.

In many ways, DeVore was one of my first real mentors. He had taken a near personal interest in my work years earlier when I was a general assignments reporter in a small North Texas town, when it couldn't have made any possible difference for Bentsen.

"Jack, please don't do anything public," I asked. In fact, I nearly begged. "I can't get pulled off this story, Jack. Please don't."

He paused, "Well, come by and see me later today." I said I would.

My boss was working across the room, and she couldn't help but overhear. We were still getting to know each other, and of course this wasn't how I wanted things to happen. She was from Lubbock, a really conservative part of the state, and her husband had been a Republican member of the Texas Legislature.

I thought, "Here is comes."

As I hung up, she asked politely, "Is there anything I need to know?" No reason to hold back now, I thought, and I told her word-for-word what happened the previous day.

Her response shocked me almost as much as the insult. "You're right," she said instantly and calmly. "He is a bigot, and he owes you an apology." That was it. She went back to work.

DeVore and I had a great talk later that day. He said he was unaware I was gay. I could tell it was an awkward topic for him, and he wasn't sure what, if anything, to do now that he knew. I didn't press the issue or write about it, and not one single fear or boo-ga-boo that kept me up the night before ever materialized.

About a year later, one of those large Texas newspapers approached me about a job at the capital, and two years after that, I founded and served as the first chair of the Texas chapter of the National Lesbian-Gay Journalists Association.

In 1994, Ann Richards' campaign approached me about a high-profile press job in the race against George W. Bush, and I got that job, too. Afterward, I learned casually that one of Ann's less-likeable consultants tried to talk to some key people in the campaign about my sexual orientation right before we closed the deal.

I also learned Ann's incredibly decent son-in-law, Kirk Adams, quashed the discussion before anyone said anything one way or the other. "We've never discriminated against anyone because of that - ever - and we aren't going to start now."

Case closed.

I've only told this story privately, and haven't even done that in ages, because it's hard to imagine any one cares. It all happened 20 years ago, and frankly I can't remember a time in my life I've actually been discriminated against for being gay - other than perennially being the last one picked for dodge ball in grade school.

Milk had one mantra: Everybody must come out. Everything he said or did in the year he was San Francisco supervisor flowed from that deeply held belief.

Milk gave a big speech about it to the California Democratic Council in the spring of 1978. It's known iconically as "The Hope Speech," and it morphed into his quintessential stump talk during the months that led to his assassination.

I still well-up when I hear his unmistakable voice tell a room of strangers about that grateful kid who called him from Altoona, Penn. I remember what it meant the first time I heard him say: "You cannot live on hope alone, but without hope, life is not worth living... and you, and you, and you; you gotta give 'em hope."

Harvey would be 79 years old on Friday, and the best way I can think to honor him and to thank him for what he did for me and so many others - and possibly to give someone else hope - is to remember the most important day in my life and to speak my truth about the way it all happened for me once again.