Understanding Adolescent Homophobia: An Interview with Bette GreeneLynne Alvine
I sat in the ALAN Workshop audience in the large hotel ballroom in Louisville, Kentucky. The speaker was describing "society's designated victim," a type of young boy who is sensitive, shy, slender and, often, studious.
I had not yet read her latest novel when I first heard Bette Greene speak about The Drowning of Stephan Jones. I picked it up one night a couple of weeks after returning from NCTE in Louisville. From the title, I knew Stephan Jones would die. I figured I'd just check out who drowned him, how they did it, and see if it was a book I wanted to include in the readings for my adolescent literature class at the university.
I should have known better than to begin one of Bette Greene's novels right before going to bed. I read into the night, knowing that Stephan Jones would die and knowing, too, that his brutalizers would not be punished, could not be punished, if the book were to have a credible ending.
I had heard the sensitivity and compassion in the author's voice as she talked about the young men for whom Stephan Jones was a prototype. I had heard the anger when she spoke of their brutalizers. I had not understood why she felt so strongly about such victimization. Why had she taken on such a potentially explosive topic?
A few months later, when I learned that Bette Greene was to be the keynote speaker at an English Festival for high school students sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English (WPCTE), I arranged for time to talk with her about her research for The Drowning of Stephan Jones.
We sat over room service coffee at the Pittsburgh Ramada Inn. It had been several years since I had been first drawn into the story of Patty and Anton in Summer of My German Soldier. It had been twenty years since this woman across the table from me had first published that novel about intolerance and persecution in Arkansas during World War II.
I had enjoyed spending the afternoon with Bette Greene and those six hundred high school students at the English Festival. I was excited to have this opportunity to talk with her about her more recent work. She appeared to be tired, but I could tell she had been energized by the interaction with so many young people.
I asked Bette to talk about why she had written a novel about a gay couple and adolescent homophobia. I wanted to know something of her connection to this story. Her initial response sounded as though it might have been about Summer of My German Soldier. She spoke slowly, as if seeing her thoughts across the Pittsburgh skyline.
I am bothered by injustice towards other people. The etiology of my hating hate probably has to do with two women whom I loved very much. One was our housekeeper Ruth, who was African-American in a time and place where the Ku Klux Klan rode. In spite of this, Ruth was not a subservient person. For example, she would never have called you, "Miz Lynne." She would have called you "Miss Alvine." She protected her dignity at a time when it was neither popular or even safe to do so.
The other woman was my grand-mother, who also lived at that time in Wynne, Arkansas. She had emigrated from Lithuania where her brother was a superintendent of schools in a mid-sized city during WW II. Even though the Germans were murdering all intellectuals and Jews, my grandmother believed her brother, who was both a Jew and an intellectual, would be safe because he was so loved and respected in the community. I remember during the war my grandmother going every day to the Wynne Post Office waiting for a letter that would never come.
When I commented on the obvious influence of Ruth and her grandmother in Summer of My German Soldier, Bette explained:
Oh, absolutely. ...German Soldier was more of my own personal violation. The Drowning of Stephan Jones is personal in that I feel so personally violated by it, and yet, it's not directly my story. I am straight and have been married to the same man for 34 years, but I don't understand brutalizing somebody because they are physically attracted to people in ways that I may not be. The first thing we do to destroy another human being is verbal. I destroy you by calling you things that take your personhood away from you. And then I may or may not do [physical] violence. I don't like verbal violence. I don't like things that people call people in this society: "Fat," "Skinny," "Four-eyes," whatever. I am offended by it. I'm deeply offended by injustice.
I turned our conversation toward her research for the book, asking about the interviews she had alluded to in the ALAN speech. Her subjects had been not only the victims and their victimizers. She had also talked with persons associated with the perpetrators of the crimes.
I did about 485 interviews in 8 states -- California, Washington, Tennessee, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. I avoided anyone who stole from the victim because then you don't know if it's really a hate crime or a crime for gain. I talked to everybody who was available -- their teachers, their Uncle Joe, their pastors, their coaches. Another criterion was that the brutalizers had to be generally considered "good boys," people who had never been in trouble before. I tried to isolate it as much as I could. I tried to find out where does the hate come from? Not all the boys were religious, but they all had been affected by religion. They knew it was OK to do violence to gay people because they thought it said so in the Bible.
Once, just to get a reaction, I suggested that perhaps there was a better target. "Old people," I ventured, "they're much better targets than gay people. Even if they manage to strike you back, it's not all that hard. Chances are they can't run away. So go for the old people." The young men were horrified, insulted that I would suggest that they would do that. They said, "I'd never hurt an old person." So, somewhere out there through our religion and our culture they have learned that it is acceptable to hurt homosexuals, but it is not acceptable to hurt their elders.
The trial lawyers help to make the situation worse. Invariably they don't have a real defense, so the attorney creates one. "The lone gay man `came on' to this bunch of boys. The defendants were provoked in some way, sexually." I don't believe it! I've talked to a lot of people in the gay community, and they say to me, "Bette, we know what the world is out there. We don't come on to people unless there is first a subtle courtship back and forth. We don't come on to a football team, for God's sakes. We're interested in romance, not suicide."
Had I done in every man who threw a pass at me when I was young, I'll tell you that there would have been any number of bodies floating down the Mississippi, the Seine, the East River, and later, the Charles.
Bette had implied that many of the abusers she had interviewed were quite young. I asked what rationale they had given for their actions against gays. Why did they believe that brutalizing gays was okay?
They quote the Bible. They quote their local ministers. I've talked with many of the ministers. They quote to me the Sodom and Gomorrah story. I may be the most expert person on Sodom and Gomorrah at this hotel, because I have studied it more than you want to know. It's not about homosexuality. It is about inhospitality. In the days before the Ramada Inn, when people were traveling, you had to take them in or they would be eaten by the wild animals or die of starvation. The man sent the daughter out instead of the guest. It has to do with gang rape. It has to do with inhospitality, but it has nothing to do with homo-sexuality. Jesus in all of his preaching never mentioned homosexuality -- not once. The Ten Commandments are notably silent on it although they do talk about adultery. Preachers don't generally preach "We hate adulterers!" or half of the people in the congregation would walk out. If they're in a church, homosexuals are well closeted. So where is the issue? Who are they preaching to? Too many members of our clergy are preaching hatred. They send people out to kill the sin, but since folks don't know where the sin is, they kill the "sinner."
Earlier that day in her speech, Bette had held up a USA Today newspaper and had pointed to four front page stories where religious fundamentalists were involved in killings. She referred to those examples as we talked.
Look at today's newspaper. A physician is gunned down. He's got three bullets in his back. The event in Waco, Texas, is another one. The [bombing of the] World Trade Center. All of this evil was done by religious fundamentalists. One was a Muslim fundamentalist. What does the Christian fundamentalist say? They say they're taking a collection up, not for Dr. Gunn, not for Dr. Gunn's two children who won't have a father, not for the grieving widow, but -- you guessed it -- for the murderer.
Any religious fundamental group (including Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) is a potential danger. The problem is that enlightened people are afraid to stand up and say that these people who spout pieties can also be terrorists and murderers. We're afraid to say it because they claim to be doing the work of God. None of us is so secure that we can speak against such a close buddy of God. There is no greater blasphemy in the world than these people who claim to be doing God's work.
I asked her to say more about her sense of how the world climate had informed her work on The Drowning of Stephan Jones.
Homophobia is endemic in America. The air we breathe is filled with homophobia. A great amount of it is coming from fundamental Christianity. I've gone to the churches of the young men who were the victimizers. On the tube I see the ever-grinning Pat Robertson. I watch the Trinity Network and the Eternal Word Network. What spews forth is a river of hate. Nobody can be more in error than when they insist that they, and they alone, speak for God.
Once again, our conversation turned toward those two men in the book who loved each other and who were brutalized for that love. I asked Bette to talk about Frank Montgomery and Stephan Jones and their attacker, Andy Harris.
Stephan Jones was a composite character of many gay men, as was Frank Montgomery. I guess Frank Montgomery was, to me, a sort of Montgomery Clift character. They were both amalgamations of a number of people. [Andy Harris and his friends] picked on Stephan Jones because he was not a fighter. So who better to pick on? Andy Harris was just like so many of the young men, only a little bit more clean cut. Andy was not a full person because he had picked up the stereotypes of his father, who used to batter him. The father would call him girl names and humiliate Andy. So, of course, Andy had a lot to prove. With the harassment of Stephan Jones, Andy could prove that he was really a man. That's what he wanted from Stephan. If he vanquished Stephan Jones, wouldn't that prove, once and for all, that he was a man?
It sounded as if she was suggesting that Andy Harris was confused about his own sexuality. I was curious as to whether she had found any evidence that the people who are the most active at the brutalizing are themselves troubled by their own unclear orientation. I asked her directly.
No doubt. Here's one thing [the brutalizers] did, Lynne, which was fascinating. I am a grandmother. As I talked with them, they often tried to convince me how macho they are. Doesn't that grab you as being strange? Why would I be interested in how macho they are? I'm guessing that they're trying to prove something more to themselves than to me. In this society, violence is too often a short-cut to masculinity. Our coaches are involved. Our coaches brutalize the kids by yelling epithets at them when they fumble the ball, epithets that wound by telling these boys that they're not men, they're girls.
I asked about the characterizations of Carla Wayland, and Carla's mother Judith, the librarian, who had stood up for intellectual freedom in the small Arkansas community where the novel is set.
Carla was a lot like my daughter. I suppose there's something of me in Judith, and there is a lot of Judith in so many librarians that I have known. Librarians are a peculiar people. They don't make more money by getting you to take a book out and exercise your mind, yet they go through all of this trouble to get you to do so. Judith liked to feel useful and to provide an important service. Intellectual freedom was very important to her. This is one of the big issues in the book. Is it okay to have your intellectual freedom impinged upon if it's -- say, for a good cause? For a religious cause? Judith didn't think so. Of course Carla was a high school student who wanted to be in the mainstream. She was proud of her mother, but she was also embarrassed by her mother. So Carla was torn by admiration, ambivalence, and love.
Clearly, Judith Wayland did not fit into the community where Bette Greene had set the novel. I asked her about her choices for that community.
It's set near Fayetteville, Arkansas, in a mountain village that's noted for the diverse types of people who come there; it welcomes "nuts and berries." Parson Springs, Arkansas, proudly proclaims that this is a place where misfits fit. So, Frank and Stephan thought that they would fit in. And they did fit in. It was in the more typical neighboring town a few miles away, they ran into harassment. That community, like much of the rural South, too often snuffs out the intellectual curiosity because what they teach is that you're not supposed to think, you're supposed to believe, to go by faith. In growing up there, whatever I was told, I believed. Or, at least, I struggled hard trying to believe whatever it is that "nice" people are programmed to believe. The teaching was that you go by faith alone. And I really tried it. I mean literally. I never, for example, studied for anything. I spent my time praying that I would pass third grade math. I prayed that I would just get a good grade. How do you deal with somebody like that?
The topics of gays in the military, homophobia, and gay and lesbian relationships had been everywhere in the press, on every talk show, in every sit com, on every news program. I asked Bette Greene about her sense of how the American public was responding to the gay rights in the military issue and/or this unprecedented focus on gay and lesbian lifestyles.
I think the American people are going to get better about it. The polls are showing they're getting better. I would want to understand how it's going to work in the military. I'm sure there are going to be some difficult adjustments, but I would like to see it.
I suggested to her that Americans will get better on the issue only if the issue is talked about, only if the taboo is lifted. Many people who consider themselves to be very liberal, who would never make a racist remark, who would never make a sexist remark, will still tell a joke about a gay person. It seems gays and lesbians are the one group that it's still okay to pick on -- sort of the last frontier of insensitivity and intolerance. Bette agreed.
It is the last frontier. I think that it is a matter of being sensitized to it. If you tell a joke, it's to dehumanize. That's why I object to it. That's the first line in any battle. You dehumanize. I object to homosexual jokes. But it's not being gay that's the problem. The problem is being in the closet, because closets kill. Barney Frank and Gerry Studds in the Congress say, "I'm gay, and I'm okay." They do their job, and they still get re-elected. But if Barney Frank or Gerry Studds were in the closet, then they could be blackmailed; they're half people. It's the J. Edgar Hoover syndrome. The former FBI head, according to a new book, was a man who was blackmailed by the Mafia because he was in the closet. I don't have objection to how people express their love if it doesn't hurt anybody else, but closets do hurt. I think being open takes a great deal of courage.
I believed The Drowning of Stephan Jones to be an important book. I knew the book had been received positively. When a high school girl came up to Bette earlier that day and said, "I loved your book," I asked her "What book?" I was not surprised that she said "...Stephan Jones." I had seen students press forward to purchase copies of the book after her talk at the Festival. I wondered, however, what Bette Greene's perspective on the response was.
Everyone who has come to me or who has written to me has been very positive. Everyone calls it a "powerful book," a book that is "memorable." Everyone I talk to who has read the book seems to have given it to somebody else to read. The only bad responses that I've received have been from people who have not read the book. When people read the book as opposed to hearing about it, [the response] is positive. I received one letter from a Methodist woman who said, "Your book gave me a whole new way of looking at gay people. Thank you for stretching the mind and the heart of a 64-year-old country woman."
Last Christmas my husband brought home four books his secretary wanted signed. When she took The Drowning of Stephan Jones home, he thought she would be very upset. I sort of forgot all about it. I talked to her two weeks ago and she said, "Mrs. Greene, I want to tell you, [the book] changed my way of seeing things. Now I see homosexuals just like people a lot like you and me. I cried when Stephan Jones died."
As Bette shared her sense of the positive response from the readers of The Drowning of Stephan Jones, I began to be hopeful of its potential. I said to her, "If the 64-year-olds can have that response, perhaps the young people can have a similar response. Perhaps it will help them ground themselves in a view that will stand up a little better against the barrage of hatred that is spewing from the religious groups."
The designated victim is in every school in America. Ted Fabiano who introduced me at NCTE, gave a very thoughtful presentation of why the book is important. He said that at his school in Kansas City, homophobia affects everyone. He pointed out that the core was the 10 to 20% of the kids who were thoughtful students, who would prefer to go to band practice than to football practice. They might very well be seen at academic competitions. They like to write or to act. They like things that are not considered "macho." This 10 to 20% of the students (some are gay, some are straight) are persecuted by an equal number who are the tormenters, a group of boys who want to show how virile they all are. The next group is the eggers-on. What they do is to act as cheerleaders to the tormentors. Then, there is the last group, the largest group of all: these are the onlookers who seek out a vantage point from which to stand and watch.
I thought again of The Drowning of Stephan Jones. "These are the `Carla Waylands' of every school. After hearing your speech, perhaps the `Carla Waylands' in the auditorium today will now have a different response when faced with situations where they must make a choice about how they will respond to the hatred."
Again and again, I see a lot of physical courage, but so little moral courage. I see young people who will do all kinds of physical things to save people they don't know, but they will do little or nothing to save a friend if they have to stand up and say "Leave this person alone." We have to point out to them that real men are not the men who are doing violence. We can from a position of authority make statements about our personal beliefs. With our silence, we create a vacuum. What they need [for] us adults to say is, "It's wrong. It's wrong to bother people, to hurt people who are minding their own business." We need to have very understanding people who are going to be our leaders. I think it's important to talk about justice and injustice with them. There were 650 kids here today who listened as I spoke for justice, and there wasn't one snicker. No, not one.
My questions were answered. Bette Greene had written The Drowning of Stephan Jones because she believes that young people in every generation must confront the issues of intolerance and injustice toward others. She had come to Pittsburgh to raise those issues with high school students. Often, however, adults don't have an opportunity to take a stand when a young person is being victimized. A code of silence operates to protect the brutalizers in most schools. Those who would censor this book perpetuate that code of silence.
The Drowning of Stephan Jones is an important book because it has the potential to develop sensitivity in young readers who might otherwise become one of the characters in the book, participating in such violence or standing by, watching it in silence. It also has the potential to reach out to society's "designated victims" who, in reading The Drowning of Stephan Jones, may come to understand that they are not alone.
Lynne Alvine is an Associate Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in English Education.