It was well past midnight. I awoke with a start as a silhouette appeared in my dorm room doorway. My heart pounded as a person approached, knelt at my bed and whispered, "Help me."
The person was a blond, carefree college senior whom I had befriended at several parties. We were drawn together by a shared interest in jazz and poetry at a time when most of our peers thought Gerry and the Pacemakers were revolutionary. He was, it seemed, the coolest cat on campus and I was flattered that he paid attention to me.
At the end of the third or fourth of those midnight visits, throughout which he drunkenly rambled about all manner of things, he flashed a razor blade and mumbled something about ending it all. He then sobbed, told me he was "queer," and held the blade to his wrist. I talked him down in soothing tones, my pulse racing out of control. Later, in sober daylight, he apologized and promised to leave me alone, recognizing accurately that my shoulders were not mature enough to carry this burden. We never talked about this again, although I sensed he was glad that I didn't shun him. His secret stayed with me and on his graduation he wrote me a painfully poignant note, thanking me for being there for him -- thanks I did not deserve, as it was only fear that kept me from fleeing.
Ten or 15 years later I received the sad news that his dorm room intention was finally fulfilled, shortly after he had been "outed" at the boarding school where he taught.
You might imagine that these memories, seared into my neurons so many years ago, leapt into my consciousness as I read of recent suicides by gay and lesbian students like 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover, 13-year-old Seth Walsh who hanged himself outside his California home after enduring taunts from classmates or Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after being streamed live having intimacy with another young man in his dorm room.
It is necessary but insufficient to confront anti-gay bullies in and out of schools. Bullying is inexcusable in any sense and can be lethal when the bullies are able to expose the most vulnerable nerve in their gay and lesbian peers.
What has not been confronted sufficiently is the political and cultural climate that enables and encourages this behavior. We don't adequately condemn the primitive religious rants of Biblical literalists or confront the cowardice of politicians who don't wish to arouse the ire of constituents. Too many of America's leaders (including the President) speak in loving and conciliatory prose but act in a way that reveals cowardice, bigotry or both, seen in their unwillingness to fight for the full rights and full human dignity of gay and lesbian citizens.
While this is not, strictly speaking, a partisan issue, the fuel for these funeral pyres comes most viciously from blowhards on the right: Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell and the persistent hypocrites Rush Limbaugh and the please-go-away-already Newt Gingrich, who campaign relentlessly for "traditional marriage."
While leaning opportunistically on hollow pillars of faith, virtue, patriotism and integrity, Limbaugh has flamed his way through three marriages, taken advantage of a plea agreement to avoid imprisonment for illegal acquisition of addictive drugs and been detained by U.S. Customs officials for possession of ill-gotten Viagra in his luggage.
In November 2008, referring to opponents of California's Proposition 8, Gingrich said, "There is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us." (Both Limbaugh and Gingrich seem rather oddly obsessed with others "having their way" with them or us.) White men like Limbaugh and Gingrich view the world though their own narrow privilege. They believe in a white, straight, Christian, American exceptionalism. They see "gay and secular fascism" where the rest of us see long-overdue social justice and freedom from state-sanctioned religiosity. They talk about multiculturalism as a joke. Or is it a threat?
For the record, I'm white and straight. I don't share this because of any need to establish my sexuality bona fides, but because too few of us seem willing to be outspoken allies.
When desperate teenagers hang themselves or jump off bridges there's more than enough blame to pass around. The dim and thoughtless young thugs who tormented them should bear the consequences. But the powerful men and women who view homosexuality as a "disorder" or relegate gay and lesbian relationships to the margin are aiding and abetting the bullies.