My Knucklehead is home for the summer, we both congratulating ourselves on successfully adapting to his first year of college. We had an interesting conversation this past week about Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. Interesting, because the conversation never took place, not this week anyway. It never took place because it’s not really that big a deal to us.
Even The Kiss didn’t register on our conversational radar. In case you missed it, Mr. Sam planted one in celebration right on his boyfriend’s mouth when he heard the news he’d been hired by the Rams, and that caused quite the kerfuffle in certain quarters. To me, it was a curiosity, probably less so to Knucks himself. Now, when Christopher Reeve kissed Michael Caine in Deathtrap, THAT was shocking, but probably mostly because it was 1982, Christopher Reeve was still Superman (though not in that film), and it also happened to quite neatly reveal a major plot point. When I saw it in theaters in ’82, I was surprised, but not disgusted. When I showed the film to The Knucklehead somewhere in the middle school years, he didn’t seem to bat an eye.
We didn’t talk about it because it not only was the news unthreatening, it was seemingly unremarkable. For a man of my generation that’s astonishing. For a man of The Knucklehead’s generation, it’s not that big a deal.
Forgive me if I’m oversimplifying. Of course I am, but only to illustrate the change in perspective from father to son. Mr. Sam, like all pioneers, has a rough road ahead of him. He will have to bear unfair scrutiny that other men his age and in his position can avoid. But the word around the campfire about this drafting can go from one end of the spectrum to the other, and sometimes it helps to realize at whose campfire you’re sitting.
I should probably have grown up as homophobic as any of my peers. After all, I was as insecure as any teen, and being a “fag sympathizer” in high school was inseparable from being labeled queer. For my generation, that was probably the thing most guys were afraid of. Two things probably helped me to look past it. One was my mother. She didn’t speak of this often, but every now and then I’d catch a comment that suggested maybe she thought gay people were kind of getting unfairly dumped on. She was the kind of person that kept an eye out for underdogs in society. I think I learned that from her.
But it was Mike that took things from there. Early in my twenties, I found myself alone in a big city, directionless, broke, and depressed. Mike was a guy I met at work, a few years older, and much wiser. Mike took me in. I’d crash at his place from time to time, he’d loan me a few bucks now and then, and he’d take me out with his friends on a night when I’d rather just isolate. Mike was gay, the first live, open homosexual I’d ever knowingly encountered. I was young, from the suburbs, and absolutely without a clue. Mike saw a person in need, and took me in as a brother. And Mike, my friends, demonstrated infinite patience.
Not once did Mike or any of his friends (and I met a lot of them) hit on me. Or at least if they did, it went right over my clueless head, and they just gave up. But they didn’t turn me away. And they put up with the dumbest questions you could imagine, all from me. (In a gay bar: “Mike, I have to piss. Should I use the ladies’ room?” “No. Go to the men’s room. That’s what it’s for. We have to piss, too. You don’t want to go into the ladies’ room.” ) My stupid gaping maw when I saw two of them kiss. When I’d occasionally find myself in Mike’s apartment alone with a couple of queens or leather boys and had a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face that no one could miss.
I spent about a year with these men, hanging out, going to movies, to bars. I am to this day grateful for what they taught me. I learned that while we had wildly different experiences and obstacles in our lives, we still had more in common than we did separating us. I saw gay men do things gay men weren’t supposed to do, like argue football and throw their socks on the floor. I got to know a man who had to travel 200 miles to spend a weekend with men who would simply let him relax and be himself. And still, that man would keep his head on a swivel walking the streets, terrified that even in the city, parents of a child he taught in the country might see him with a group of fags. I saw proud men openly weeping at the loss of their families, of the parents, grandparents, or brothers they’d never see again because of who they were. I learned what streets you couldn’t walk down holding another man’s hand without literally risking your life. These men were proud, angry, battered, anguished, cursed, embattled, and tenacious just to exist as who they were. And in the middle of all of that, they opened their hearts and homes for an outsider who could do none of them any good whatsoever. It is from these men that I learned that homosexuality (and what I’d come to know later as the LGBT community) was nothing more or less than a basic matter of civil rights.
It should not have taken these men to help me come to that decision. I am embarrassed that the possibility exists that I would not have felt empathy for my fellow human beings without their assistance. Maybe I would have, I like to think so, but I really can’t say. My point is, without that experience, I may not have embraced my passion for civil rights as I did, and may not have been as ardent in passing it on to my son. I come from a generation where seeing a man – and not just a man, a football player – kiss another man on the mouth is shocking. The recent growing support of marriage equality, to my generation, is dizzying. And since my generation runs most of the media outlets – particularly the media outlets people my age pay attention to – it can appear that a cultural apocalypse is brewing.
Not so to people of The Knucklehead’s generation. Sure there’s plenty of homophobia scattered among the young. But when I listen to Knucks tell me about opinions and attitudes held by his peers, the feeling I hear most frequently expressed is, “What’s the big deal?” Being gay in high school or college is still a daily challenge, no doubt about that. But the opposition to it often comes more from the older generation than it does from one’s peers. And there is far more support for an LGBT youngster, both from organizations and from peers than there ever was in the 1970’s. I don’t see that, because when I think of high school, I think of high school from a generation ago. When I had to argue with my mother about wearing jeans to school. Because she was thinking about high school from the 1930’s.
When I listen to my son, I have more hope for his generation than I did before. When I stop assuming that I know what it’s like to grow up in the 21st century, I learn things. Mostly what I learn is that if we do a good job passing on our core values to our knuckleheads – the essence of them and not just the details – they can do a pretty good job of applying them to new situations.
I fear less for the LGBT community when I listen to my son and his friends. I still see their challenges, but I see the strength and resources they have that my generation did not. I feel as though their own generation is closer to embracing the value of all human beings than my generation was. I’m heartened by that. A kid coming out today has a difficult road before him, but a more exciting one as well. Keep it up, Generation Knucklehead, keep it up. Let us older folks lose our monocles in eye-popping astonishment at gay men claiming their role in the world. You have other things to talk about.
(Note: as I sat down to write this piece, I didn’t intend it to be an answer to my friend Natalie Davanti’s recent blog post. But as I look back over my post, I see the same theme, only from a different angle. Though seemingly on opposite sides of a generational issue, I don’t see this as a rebuttal or an argument to Natalie’s post, but rather as a companion essay. Natalie, like all good writers, must have got me thinking, without me even realizing it. I encourage you to check out her essay, and if you haven’t yet, her wonderful blog. She also posts weekly, but on Thursdays. Here’s the one I have in mind: http://savingjustenough.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/both-sides-now/ Read it. Together, I think we make a hell of a team.)