America's Designated Victims: Our Creative YoungBette Greene
After my novel The Drowning of Stephan Jones (inspired by a true crime, the drowning of a gay man by a teenager on a "religious" rampage) was published, something very strange happened. At first it seemed strange; while later on, it became almost predictable. Every time I spoke before an assembly of students, there would always be at least one boy who shyly requested permission to speak with me "In private." And what that boy and more than a half a hundred like him have now told me was so private that they dared not speak of it to their parents -- no, not even to their closest friends.
From Berryville, Arkansas, to Manhasset, New York, the stories were all different, but yet they were all variations on the same disturbing theme: Our most creative young people are being tormented in every college, high school, junior high school, and, yes, grammar school in every state, city, and town in this nation. The reason for this always emotional and oftentimes physical oppression is that, try as they may, some boys simply cannot cram themselves into the mold befitting America's macho machine.
Although much of this force is generated by the fear of homosexuality, it isn't at all necessary to be homosexual to be persecuted as one of America's "designated victims." A designated victim is a boy, usually slender, usually thoughtful, who would prefer creating beauty to crushing bones. Because they might enjoy gymnastics, fencing, acting, writing, or band practice rather than football practice, these boys are called "faggots" and that's just for openers.
While it's true that the great majority of these young men, some sniffing back tears, who confided in me insisted that they weren't gay, yet each of them had had his manhood questioned. And they had it persistently and savagely questioned. Was it their fault, I wondered, that not one of these young victims had a face that one would expect to find amid the pages of Sports Illustrated? Is that really what we as a great people on the cusp of the twenty-first century are needing? A nation of linebackers?
I would never have even guessed at the size and dimension of the "designated victim" problem if I had not written a book that opened a window onto the violence against homosexuals. But it has been people's extraordinary response to that book that has extended my window into an ever-widening vista.
In his introduction of me at the ALAN Workshop, Ted Fabiano, a young English teacher from Kansas City, flatly stated that homophobia affected everyone in his school. He broke it down: most obviously are those "designated victims," some gay, most not. Then there are those that verbally and physically oppress the victims, followed by those that egg on the oppressors of the "designated victims." And lastly there is the largest group of all: those silent observers who watch the people who egg on the people who brutalize the "designated victims." Forty years ago, a high school friend of mine with the improbable name of James Crowe committed suicide. What I did not -- could not -- understand then, I understand now. Jim Crowe was one of Central High School's "designated victims." In the best high school in Memphis, he was the best -- the very best of the best! He had a fine baritone voice, was a gifted actor and a caring friend, and possessed a mind that reflected lights like crystal chandeliers at a royal wedding.
Oh, sure, I knew that he was "teased" because he had no interest whatsoever in sports, at least not in team sports. He much preferred his Saturday morning acting job on Memphis' premier station, WREC. That was his dream of one day acting, singing, and, perhaps, directing professionally. And any schoolboy anywhere can tell you that that's suspect. Very, very suspect! Some of the jocks, and would-be jocks, mocked Jim by nicknaming him "Sister Boy," which, incidentally, was the same name they hung on the suffering prep student in Robert Anderson's masterful play, Tea and Sympathy. In Anderson's play, however, the boy is "saved" by his physical union with Deborah Kerr, the headmaster's beautiful wife.
In "real life," I did not save Jim Crowe. Unlike Deborah Kerr, I lacked an understanding of the true depth and dimension of Jim's despair. In my eyes, he seemed to soar so far beyond his schoolmates that I chose to believe the pretty myth that a giant couldn't be brought down by a bunch of intellectual and moral pygmies.
If this society's constant preaching-railing-cruelty against homosexuality weren't bad enough (and, God knows, it is bad enough), it is hurting a great many more than the estimated ten percent of the population that are gay and lesbian. It hurt Jim Crowe, and it's also hurting untold numbers of young males whose only crime is that they're suffering from what I've come to label the three S's: Sensitive, Shy, and Slender. Jim Dodge, a New Hampshire police chief, suggested to me that there's a fourth S: Studious.
A psychiatrist who has achieved fame treating both sports heroes and literary lights once estimated that there were as many homosexuals in the American Football League as there are in the Authors League of America. But who would believe that? Myths die hard; and the prettier the myth, the harder it dies.
While researching The Drowning of Stephan Jones, I conducted over four hundred interviews during a twenty-month period in eight states, and I came to the sad conclusion that a lot of preachers, especially televangelists, are manufacturing hate from their pulpits. When, for example, I'd ask someone who had committed a crime against a gay why he did it, his answers were often shocking. Oftentimes the now-convicted felon would quote the Bible, his minister, and one-or-more of the nationally known televangelists to justify his violence. Reverend Jerry Falwell's words about homosexuality were, for example, once quoted to me in great detail by a teenager who had the week before opened up the skull of a man on his way to buy microwave popcorn at a convenience store.
When I'd follow a young criminal's thread back to his local pastor, the pastor, like all the clergymen I interviewed, would fervently proclaim, "Oh, no, I've never preached hatred. I only preach love. We hate the sin, but we love the sinner." For a long time, I thought about what so many ministers had told me about making that neat little dividing line between the sin and the sinner, and wondered if it really were possible.
To find out, I devised a psychodrama that I played with twenty-six people who had at least two advantages over the felons: they were at least fifteen years older, and they all had a reputation of being loving. With my Parker pen at the ready, I'd ask the participant to pretend that my favorite pen was a knife that I had just slid between his ribs. Then I'd ask my profusely bleeding victim if he hated me or the violence that I had done to him. It was no contest. Twenty-five had no trouble shouting out variations of, "No, I'd hate you, Bette."
A talk-show host on whose show I appeared labeled my book, "More than controversial, it's explosive!" While I may have been the first to write a popular novel about this shocking source of hate against gays and lesbians, I am most certainly not the first to be aware of it. Far from it: practically every thoughtful person seems to be all too aware that this is happening -- and it's happening now.
Of course, the clergy are far from alone in their hysterical homophobia with its broad-based consequences. But it is the voices of the clergy that resonate beyond the churchyard, past the villages, through the towns, and into all of our cities across this nation. If the "spiritual" voices are heard spewing hate and divisiveness, then where goeth our standards of decency?
In March of 1991, Boston was ready to explode over the issue of whether twenty-five gay and lesbian Irish-Americans would be allowed to march in our city's Saint Patrick's Day Parade. Both The Boston Herald and The Boston Globe called to ask me what I think should be done.
Usually, I don't have answers, nevermind instant answers, that I'm so certain of. But this time, I knew precisely what should be done: "Respectfully call upon the one person in all of New England who has the prestige, the power, and the authority to lead us Bostonians into a circle of brotherhood," I begged. "Bernard Cardinal Law could say `no more violence' and make it stick." The Archdiocese of Boston came roaring back with five adjectives, all negative. They pointed out that The Drowning of Stephan Jones was "merely anecdotal and non-scientific" and that the author herself was "ludicrous, bizarre, and irresponsible."
To understand the oppression of the gays and lesbians by the religious community, I believe that it's instructive to look back on this 300th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials. During that period, many people (including 15 children) were put to death because they were, according to the parsons and priests, dancing with the devil.
The trials were stopped when the laity of the late sixteenth century rose up against the clergy chanting, "No more burnings!" Cotton Mather, the greatest preacher of the day, resisted, calling the laity "Devils or people who are talking with the devil." Ultimately, with the help of a Massachusetts governor, the clerics backed off, and, I'm pleased to announce, not once since, not in all these years, has another witch been found in the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts!
I believe that it's way past time that we, the laity of the late twentieth century, should take our clues from the courageous laity of 1692. It took great courage, as well as great revulsion, for mere laymen to finally rise up against men who claimed to be God's earthly representatives. Well, we, the thinking laity of today, have already experienced the same revulsion experienced by our forefathers.
It is neither too early nor too late to do what they did: confront those un-lit minds, no matter how exalted be their station. Back in 1692, the people's questions to the parsons and the priests were, "Haven't we hung enough witches?" Today our updated question to these men of God is, "Haven't we brutalized and buried enough gays? Haven't we brutalized and buried enough of our creative young?"
Let us say "no" to oppression in the name of political expediency. Let us say "no" to oppression in the name of patriotism, and, for God's sake, let us say "no" to oppression in the name of religion.
Bette Green, author of Summer of My German Soldier, The Drowning of Stephan Jones, and other novels, delivered this address at the November, 1992 ALAN Workshop at the National Council of Teachers of English Convention in Louisville.