This was on the occasion of the Statue’s centennial, during a televised rededication ceremony aboard the yacht Princess in the middle of New York Harbor. In attendance were assorted VIPs, including Ronald and Nancy Reagan. After Hope told his joke, a camera panned the audience and found the First Family laughing.
Neither Hope’s joke nor the Reagans’ reaction were considered scandalous at the time, though one letter-writer to the LA Times did scold Hope for associating a national monument with such an ugly disease. No public figures thought to question the joke’s propriety, even though thousands of Hope’s and the Reagans’ fellow Americans were dead and dying just across the water, in Greenwich Village and SoHo and Chelsea. Perhaps Hope was allowed to make his joke, and the Reagans were allowed to laugh at it, because on some level most Americans suspected AIDS victims deserved what they got, or that AIDS victims were in some sense un-people. Certainly, the absence of opprobrium in response to Hope’s joke made it clear that gay deaths were unequal to straight deaths.
This probably wasn’t something most Americans had spent much time considering, least of all Bob Hope or Ronald Reagan. Gays existed in some weird alternate version of America, a shamed America with dim lights and loud music and something called “poppers,” and (of course) frightening quantities of strange sex. Thinking about gays, and especially about their sex, made normal people uncomfortable. To treat the deaths in New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles with proper respect would require the VIPs aboard the Princess to struggle through that discomfort, to disgust themselves, to question too many easy assumptions about morality and life and God and family that they’d clung to for so many happy decades. It would be a dirty business, with no guarantee of happy ending. Better to joke, and to laugh, and to hope the gays could figure out this AIDS thing on their own.
Well. Not only did we largely figure out the AIDS thing on our own. We figured out the media thing, the school thing, the PR thing, the political organization thing, and a great deal of the marriage thing. Only a small and shrinking minority of Americans still believe gays are un-people. We gays, most Americans now agree, have been on the right side of history all along.
How did we get them to agree? By coming out of the closet, by tending our lawns, by driving up property values in our neighborhoods, by getting on TV — and by viciously punishing any public figures who said nasty things about us. Twenty-six years after Hope’s hideous jape, any entertainer who would tell such an insensitive joke had better save it for his retirement party. Ask Tracy Morgan, who nearly lost his job for parodying the kind of prejudice Hope and the Reagans blithely carried in their hearts. Or actor Isaiah Washington, who was booted from Grey’s Anatomy for using a word very much like “fairy” in a backstage argument.
This week, it might be better still to ask Reggie Williams. Not the NBA player or the NFL player, but rather the un-famous baseballer who spent the last five years assembling an uninspiring stat sheet in the minor leagues while on contract with the Minnesota Twins. Non-baseball nuts had never heard of him ’til last Saturday, when he took to Twitter to wonder:
Why are there so many gay n****** these days? Smh
“Smh,” by the way, stands for “shake my head.” Williams continued:
Scratch that… why are there so many gay people these days? Smh
One of Williams’s few Twitter followers confronted him, wondering what his point was. In the brief twitchange that followed, Williams was asked precisely what was wrong with there being “so many” gay people, to which Williams responded:
besides the fact that they’re gay?
besides God calling it an abomination in the Bible?
Further discussion yielded:
… it does bother me when I see the bold act of gayness out in public
I didn’t criticize any gay people… I simply asked why are there so many gay people these days?
the problem is that if everybody decided to be gay then the human population will be extinct.
It went on from there. By Monday, Williams’s tweetings had garnered him more celebrity than baseball ever had. He was bashed at Deadspin, Storify, MSN.com, AfterElton, elsewhere. Bouncing through the blogosphere, Reggie Williams — an under-educated, under-talented, non-famous black man in his 20s — was transformed for one weird moment into the least-liked man in gay America.
Actually, he was one of two. The other least-liked man in gay America was the execrable Bryan Fischer, head of the anti-gay American Family Association, who’s spent the last week yowling about Mitt Romney’s appointment of out gay man Richard Grenell as his foreign policy spokesman. It began, as seemingly all things begin, on Twitter. Twatted Fischer:
Romney picks out & loud gay as a spokesman. If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead.
Fischer followed up with a column Rightly Concerned:
This clearly is a deliberate and intentional act on his part, since he was well aware of Mr. Grenell’s sexual proclivities and knew it would be problematic for social conservatives. It’s certainly not possible that there are no other potential spokesmen available, men who are experts in foreign policy and who at the same time honor the institution of natural marriage in their personal lives.
… This is not just an Etch-A-Sketch moment for the governor, it is a crossing-the-Rubicon moment. It appears to be a dog-whistle to the homosexual lobby, a way of saying to them I’m with you, not with them. It appears to be his way of saying to gay activists that when push comes to shove you can count on me. I’ll be in your corner, not theirs.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Fischer’s approximation of logic, taken to its conclusion, would deny all gays the dignity of employment, since virtually any employer can find at least one qualified straight person to fill a given position. But let’s say it anyway, because it’s such a hideous thing to hear: an American man of considerable power and influence calling for a purge of gays and lesbians from the American workplace, and consequently from American life.
Sad to say, the dopy twitterings of Reggie Williams and Bryan Fischer’s howling about Richard Grenell received about the same amount of coverage in the mainstream press, and were treated similarly — with a kind of icy scorn so secure in its own righteousness that most pundits didn’t bother to argue against the homophobes’ points. This is unfortunate. Bryan Fischer and Reggie Williams are not the same men, and their behaviors are informed by two very different, and very unequal, kinds of homophobia. Bryan Fischer is a man who’s thought about and plotted against gays for hours of every day for years and years, and made a not-bad living doing it. Reggie Williams is an unlettered black kid who learned reflexive homophobia from his preacher, and who’s plainly never bothered to think too much about gayfolk at all. Fischer is an enemy to gay people, and to anyone who believes that America’s genius is its ability to house more than one kind of American. Reggie Williams is an enemy to no one. He just hasn’t met enough gays.
Perhaps sensing that his twitterings have imperiled his already tenuous hold on a baseball career, Williams has spent the last five days online apologizing to the gay community, insisting that he loves everyone, and quoting favorite Bible verses on the subjects of brotherly love and redemption. He’s plainly dazed by what’s befallen him, as he should be: The anger he has awakened in the gay community isn’t really for him. It’s for Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and for Bob Hope — all the people who poured their dumb bigotry into the culture when we were too weak to stop them. Williams shouldn’t have to sit, quaking, before his computer on their account; sending out serial apologies to a bunch of people he’s never met and with whom he suspects he’s got nothing in common. When a Reggie Williams steps into our lives, it would be sane to ignore him, to befriend him, or to educate him — but to punish him? This late in the culture war, gays are far more dangerous to any given athlete than an athlete can possibly be to gays, and we can afford to be charitable. And if not charitable, we should be smart enough to tell the difference between ignorance and malice. The former is curable. The latter probably isn’t. Some people are just born that way.