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Mark Olmsted

Mark Olmsted

Posted: October 11, 2010 09:50 PM

Homophobia. I've always found it strange that of all the words for prejudice, only the one referring to gays is couched in terms of fear. Ironic, considering those terrorized hostages in the Bronx were the ones afraid for their lives.

I've been to prison, where the racial politics were intense, but I never heard it described as "Ebonophobia" or "Blancophobia." And yet the races were very afraid of each other. We were constantly told to be on the lookout for a race riot. Perversely, as a HIV+ gay person marginalized by all groups, I had some leeway in breaking the "rules" normally governing white contact with other races. I ended up reaching out to many more blacks and Latinos than my pale peers. I was determined that those of any race would be able to later say: "I knew this gay guy in Chino who always gave me coffee. He was alright."

When they found out I was a writer, one of the Latinos -- Loco -- came to ask me about a letter from his girlfriend. He wanted to know if a night out with her friends meant she was seeing another man. All I could read between the lines was that she was bored and isolated alone with their one-year old all day. I told him to ask her to keep a diary noting all the progress of their child so she could later send it to him. I also suggested he encourage her to get her G.E.D. or do some volunteer work -- something to improve herself. "But do you think she's fucking around on me?" he insisted. I might as well have been speaking Martian -- or so I thought.

I got to know a bunch of guys like Loco, many just like the kind of men who committed the heinous crimes in the Bronx. Universally, the discipline they knew growing up consisted of harsh words and hairbrushes, often fists and belts. Violence was their first language -- they hated it, but learned it fluently. (And though rarely admitted, sexual abuse was common.) Only when they were able to prevent the abuse physically did it stop, reinforcing the narrative that the only cure for violence is violence. Their prime inner directive became to never be a victim again.

This fear translates into the credo: "Do unto others before they do unto you." Victimizing others becomes a form of self-protection; the more others fear and "respect" you, the safer you feel. The legacy of shame from having been a victim also fuels a hostility for weakness and vulnerability in others. Girlfriends and wives are usually the handiest target on which they project this self-contempt, but "females" (I never once heard "women" used in prison -- too respectful) can at least leverage sex, earning power, maternity and other men into the equation.

Gays have no such tools. As a result, they are virtually invisible in poor or Bible-belt neighborhoods. Refusing to live on the down-low involves considerable risk; and especially after this weekend, prodigious courage.

I have no compassion for predators who sodomize with broom handles. But I do think it's crucial to understand what brings them to a point that they are capable of such cruelty. For they are not just a few bad apples. Huge numbers of young men of all colors keep growing up with these attitudes, immune to the winds of cultural change embodied in TV shows they never see or music they never listen to. The little moral guidance they get comes from their limited exposure to the conservative churches of their Catholic and Baptist mothers and grandmothers. Nothing they learn on the street or in the juvenile justice system does anything to counter these attitudes.

If the ones who have reached the point of acting on it are probably irredeemable, perhaps those who haven't aren't. Certainly, we need to try to keep reaching them. (Believe it or not, Loco did finally take my suggestions. His girlfriend was thrilled.)

This current upsurge in anti-gay rhetoric and violence is also not occurring in a vacuum. The Teapublican attempt to take our country backwards is reflected historically in the kinds of backlash that accompany massive socio-cultural change. Ironically, the men accused of this crime are part of the very demographic that so threaten the Deminted Paladinos of the white wing. The events in the Bronx are at least in part a symptom of this trickle-down fear. It remains to be seen if this ugly virus spreads further or is perhaps instead serving to immunize the host.

 

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