“I thought bitterly, these people could really recognize a Jew.”
— Alicia Appleman-Jurman, Alicia: My Story
I’m a college teacher, and although I don’t make much money (Missouri ranks forty-eighth among states in educational expenditures), I work long days. Like most teachers, I take work home in the evenings, grade papers, prepare classes, do committee chores, and write journal articles over the weekends. My evaluations are consistently positive. “You’re a great teacher,” writes one student. “I’ve learned more in your class than in all four years of high school,” writes another. Students say I am rarely “boring” and always “human.” Last year, I won a faculty merit award. I have a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa, and a master’s from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where I earned my undergraduate degree as well.
Before attending Iowa, I taught for four years at a predominantly black college where, although I am white and Southern, I was invited by the undergraduates to be adviser to a black fraternity. While I was teaching as a graduate assistant at Iowa, my supervisor took the extraordinary step of writing my parents to congratulate them on the fine person I was — and still am, presumably.
In high school, the faculty determined that I was the “Most Outstanding” student in my graduating class. I was voted “Most Talented” and “Most Likely to Succeed” by my peers. And although I’m no good at sports, I play a mean piano. My kindergarten teacher told my parents that I was the most intelligent child she’d ever known.
Just last week, in the parking lot behind the library, I encountered a woman who had tutored under my supervision in the writing lab a few years ago. She’d had a run-in with her current boss and wanted to talk. As she was leaving, she said, “You’re the nicest person I’ve ever worked for, Jake.” There were tears in her eyes.
No question about it. I’m a fine person, an admirable human being.
I’m also a fag. Which means that I regard my accomplishments and abilities and virtues with considerable irony. Not because I think any less of myself in the abstract, but because I know how little my accomplishments and abilities and virtues protect me from self-doubt.
One day, I was walking across campus on my way to class. I passed four young men on a corner. They were ordinary, boisterous. The sun was in my eyes, my bald head gleaming like a chrome bumper. As I continued down the hill, I heard one of the students say, “Let’s get him!” They all laughed, and one boy barked like a dog — like a dog chasing a cat, a pussycat. I was horrified, embarrassed, saddened. Did they mean me?
Four or five years ago, I would walk past a three-story apartment building where students lived. One spring morning, as I walked by on the opposite side of the street, I heard a deep, male voice, cooing with mock seductiveness, “Here, kitty. Here, kitty.” I couldn’t see anyone, couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from, and I stopped thinking about it. But the next day and the day after that, the same time each day, I knew I was being taunted. It took courage to walk by slowly, defiantly. Or I walked a block out of my way.
One afternoon, walking the other way home, I was startled by that same voice: “Oh looook.” I turned toward the street and saw my tormentor pursuing me in his car, the window on the passenger’s side rolled down. There were two young men in the car, both of them grinning at me. I didn’t recognize either of them. They drove off. I assume they eventually graduated.
When I was an undergraduate, I asked a friend, “Do people think I’m gay?”
“You?!” he replied, with mock incredulity, always joking.
If I am “obvious” to some people, I am less obvious to others. Last year I tutored a track star. He was writing a paper about a proposal to modernize the public swimming pool in the city park. He told me about all the “queers” who hang out in the park. He and other runners train there in the spring. “We run with our shirts off, and you can see ’em watching us.” Then he said, “I’d like to nuke ’em all.”
Did he know who he was talking to? He’d been in my class, he’d asked to work with me in the lab, and he still waves to me from across campus. I don’t think he knows.
I teach a graduate course for high-school English teachers. One night we were discussing how to respond to students who write papers expressing clearly reprehensible views. One teacher began telling us about one of her students who wrote about gays. I braced myself, lifted my cup of coffee to my lips, took a swallow of cold dregs. “She wrote that she hates gays for a lot of reasons but mainly because they try to hide the fact that they’re gay.” I felt my face reddening. Should I take the woman’s story as a cue and reveal my own nature? Should I invite discussion of homophobia? Was the woman encouraging me or baiting me? Or was she honestly unaware? Her story lasted three minutes. The blood drained from my face, my palms grew clammy. If these students didn’t know before, I thought, they must know now. I struggled to get through the rest of the hour. I felt sick, humiliated.
There is the oft-repeated remark that if all gays suddenly turned green, the curse of homophobia would be lifted. Maybe. Or maybe we’d just have another class of “colored people.” In any event, I can’t complain. I have friends (both gay and straight), a steady job, a mortgage. Nobody has burned a cross on my lawn — yet. Nobody has strung me up. I’m not starving. Nor am I dangerously obese — or handicapped or disfigured. I’m not addicted to drugs. I don’t have AIDS. Or cancer or Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. Jokes about gays are no worse than jokes about bald people, I guess.
To a great extent I am my own worst enemy.
I was leaving school for the day, in a hurry to get home, when I saw a young couple approaching on the sidewalk. They were tanned, arm in arm, wearing shorts, beautiful. Alarmed and embarrassed by their blatant and aggressive heterosexuality, I lowered my gaze. When I glanced up, she was biting her lip to keep from laughing. I stared at her, incredulous, wounded. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Was she laughing at me? Was I going crazy? After they passed, I heard the girl say, “Poor guy.” I wanted to lie face down on the sidewalk, bury myself on the spot, burrow underground.
I wrote to Jimmy, a gay friend in Florida, about this incident. “What did I do?” I asked. “Am I so effeminate?”
“You don’t look like a linebacker,” he responded. “But during all those years before you told me, I never once suspected you were gay.” My problem, he wrote, is that I project my insecurities. Like an animal that’s been beaten, I behave oddly around people, fearing the worst, inviting it. Corrupted by society’s tendency to group homosexuals with child molesters, serial killers, and security risks, I participate in my own debasement.
Jimmy is eight years younger than I. We grew up next door to each other in North Carolina. He was still in high school when I started teaching college. He would come over during the summer when I was home visiting my parents, and we’d spend the morning on the porch discussing music, a mutual interest. I could play the piano, but he was the musicologist. He loved opera and had the good taste to prefer Verdi over Richard Strauss. While I liked Der Rosenkavalier, Jimmy admired Otello. While I could brag that I’d seen Tristan at Covent Garden, Jimmy had actually read the libretto. Jimmy could also argue intelligently that The Turn of the Screw was a compelling work, superior to Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. He could discuss with equal ease the careers of Maria Callas or Ethel Merman. Gypsy was his favorite musical.
In some respects Jimmy fit the stereotype perfectly. But his brilliance (he was a whiz at math as well as English) and his big feet were what people noticed first. An awkward six-foot-four, he was “different” all right, but acceptably so. Jimmy was a brain.
He “came out” during his senior year at the University of Virginia. He’d worked in a gay bar for a while. He’d met someone, and they were living together. After graduation, they moved to Tampa, got jobs, bought a house — all very matter-of-factly.
I wasn’t surprised that Jimmy was gay, but I was amazed that he could be so comfortable with it. I suppose I envied him. At the same time, I knew I wasn’t like that. I had my reputation, my future to consider. Jimmy’s mother and sister may have accepted his homosexuality (his father was deceased), but I was not yet ready to accept my own. I was not about to make an issue of it; there was still the possibility that I might change. What my parents and my sister and her family didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
When Jimmy came out, I was tempted to tell him about myself. But I didn’t. Then, ten years later, my fate accepted, my future determined, accustomed to the narrow rounds of a college professor in a small, Midwestern city (at a school whose address is Normal Avenue), I decided to tell Jimmy the truth. He had proved his friendship over the years, and I mine. He could be trusted. My father had died. I would not hurt my father. So I confessed to Jimmy in a letter. “There’s something I want you to know,” I must have begun. “Please don’t tell anybody,” I must have written. And I must have complimented him on his courage. I must have told him how much I admired him.
Looking back on my life, I could acknowledge his achievement, so to speak, compared to mine. I had a doctorate and job security, while he was office manager in a cut-rate women’s apparel company. But Jimmy had been true to himself. He had been smart enough to follow his heart. He’d never been bothered by what people might think. Because he was brilliant and courageous, or because of the way he’d been raised, or because he was just plain perverse, he had never given a damn. That was the difference between us. “What people might think” had always been my primary concern.
Of course, if I hadn’t cared so much about what people might think, I wouldn’t have been voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” But if I didn’t still care so much, I wouldn’t be devastated by a stupid insult.
I imagined him turning to his passenger and saying, “Fuckin’ fag.” I imagined his heart beating faster with the thrill of what he’d accomplished, his blood pressure rising with rage. I imagined how he hated the sight of me, of what I must represent for him.
I’d stayed late in the writing lab one afternoon to work with a student who’d come in at four-thirty (we close at five) to talk about a paper. I listened to her complaints, her concerns, and tried to ask the right questions, to give her some direction. She wasn’t aware of the time, and I resisted looking at my watch, not wanting to discourage her from talking. It was six o’clock before she got up to leave, thanking me for staying late. As I turned out the lights and locked the door, I was thinking how good I felt, how pleased I was with myself for staying late to help this young woman. I felt proud to be a teacher.
I hurried to the parking lot behind the library, where mine was the only car left at that hour. I approached, key in hand, ready to unlock the door. I heard someone shout, “Fag.”
I looked up and saw a car racing up the hill to the men’s dorm at the other end of the lot, the window on the driver’s side rolled down, the driver’s bare arm over the sill. He was a young man, obviously a student. I could see another boy on the passenger’s side. After their car disappeared, I glanced around to see if there was anyone else the insult could have been intended for. But I was alone on the lot, a perfect target, and the street was empty.
I unlocked the door and sat at the wheel for a moment. What had I done? Did I walk funny? I was wearing a tan, summer-weight suit with a blue button-down, oxford-cloth shirt, a conservative tie, brown bluchers. I wasn’t dressed funny.
I drove the three blocks home. I cut the engine and sat there as the automatic garage door rumbled along its tracks, closing me in. I did not go inside the house, start dinner. I sat in the car and let reality sink in: the black vinyl of the steering wheel, the brown vinyl dash, the tinted windshield, the dirty hood, and beyond that, on a shelf at the back of the garage, boxes of Ferti-lome bone meal, Ferti-lome blood meal, and Ferti-lome “tomato food,” plastic bottles of used lawn-mower oil I was saving to recycle, a couple of leftover strips of aluminum siding, a bag for catching grass clippings that I never bothered to attach to the mower, and a box left by the previous owners in which their Farberware percolator had been shipped. I looked at these signs of life, like artifacts on an ice floe, and thought: who designed that package of bone meal? How many people were involved in the manufacture of that clippings catcher? There were people in the world designing packaging, manufacturing lawn mowers, going to work every day, worrying about money, returning home in the evenings, happy in their routines.
And on the box of bone meal, a picture of yellow roses, as cheerily inane as a greeting card — a greeting card found lying on the surface of the moon.
I thought about the boy who’d called me a fag, wondered who he was. I could picture him in the distance through the rolled-down window, his profile as he drove up the hill, his sleeveless arm. He wasn’t one of my students. If he were, I thought, he wouldn’t have done that. He didn’t even know me. I could imagine him flooring the pedal as he drove up the hill, hurling his insult out the window like a grenade. I imagined him turning to his passenger and saying, “Fuckin’ fag.” I imagined his heart beating faster with the thrill of what he’d accomplished, his blood pressure rising with his rage. I imagined how he hated the sight of me, of what I must represent for him. I thought of how young he was, just a kid, full of energy, high-spirited, running on testosterone, his rage as visceral, atavistic, intoxicating as sex. He was just a kid, a bully, a jerk, jock, redneck, stupid idiot, damn fool. And he was Ivan the Terrible, Attila the Hun, Adolph Hitler, a threat to civilization.
Refusing to become involved, afraid to confront my students with the truth that might change their lives (and my own), cowering fearfully behind the closet door, observing wistfully the progress that has been made over the last twenty years without my participation, I question my motives in speaking now.
Just the week before, our campus had been visited by Alicia Appleman-Jurman, survivor of the Holocaust, author of Alicia: My Story. As she explained when she visited my advanced composition class, she was determined that young people know the true story of what happened to the Jews during the war. She survived the murder of her entire family — her father, four brothers, and finally her mother, who had thrown herself between Alicia and the SS man who fired the fatal shot. This and other horrors she told us, along with details about the publishing of her book. One agent phoned to say that she loved it, that she’d cried through the entire draft — and then rejected it. She told us about signing a contract with Bantam Books, rather than another publisher, because Bantam would publish it as a paperback, and she wanted the widest possible distribution.
At seven that evening, Alicia gave a lecture in the University Center, open to the public. I paid my dollar, feeling obligated to take advantage of the opportunity to hear again in person a survivor of the Holocaust, someone who had lived through hell and would be qualified, therefore, to explain the nature of evil. I expected her to unravel the mystery of the universe, but she only repeated the same stories she’d told in my class that morning. I was disappointed. I wondered how many times she’d told the same stories (and the same jokes about the publishing world) the same way. Perhaps that explained how she could describe the horrors of the Holocaust without dissolving into sobs. A large woman, she stood tall and erect behind the podium, shoulders back, chin up, accustomed to the spotlights, the rapt gazes.
As I glanced around the ballroom, I felt a little ashamed of being there, a Holocaust groupie, eager for the most gruesome detail. And while I admired Alicia for her courage, her strength, her fidelity to the memory of her parents and brothers, I wondered if the retelling of her story so many times, observing the same reactions from so many audiences, hadn’t jaded her. On the one hand, her story had to be told. On the other, it couldn’t be. It was too dreadful to express, and any attempt would be a reduction of the enormity, a trivialization.
She spoke of the courage and intelligence of young people. This was her hope and her faith — that there was good in the young. This was why she was touring the country, seeking out young people on campuses across the nation. This was why she was speaking to these students tonight. But another survivor of her experiences might have been traumatized into silence, inaction, isolation, utter despair, madness. Which response held more integrity?
Referring to the “tragic page of history” written by her generation, Alicia concluded with the hope that this current generation’s history would be written in “love, happiness, shalom, and the celebration of human dignity.” During the brief question-and-answer period, she repeated that point. The issue is human dignity, she said. There is danger, she said, in singling out any minority — national, ethnic, or racial — for discrimination. The danger is for everyone, she said.
She did not include homosexuals — or the handicapped or the poor or the filthy rich — in her list of minorities. Not that I expected her to. While everyone knows that homosexuals were persecuted by the Nazis, I suspect “gay rights” is an issue that would have detracted from her focus, distracted her audience from the point, and so I don’t criticize her for not bringing up the subject, although I do wonder how she feels about it personally.
In any case, I’m in no position to criticize. There is a chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Students Association (GLSA) on campus, but I have never attended a meeting and don’t plan to. Last month, the organization sponsored a showing of Common Threads, the documentary about the AIDS quilt, in conjunction with its display in our fieldhouse. I didn’t see the film, and I didn’t attend the display. I was afraid someone would see me there and jump to the right conclusion.
Sometimes I think I should not have become a teacher, an upholder of standards, a champion of convention. Perhaps I should not have settled in a small, Midwestern city. Perhaps, under other circumstances, with the support of a tolerant community, I might have found the courage to relax, to feel comfortable about myself, to live without fear. But I don’t know. Character is fate. What’s more, I’m a child of the fifties.
In some ways I should be grateful. My situation has forced me to recognize certain conflicts at the heart of existence that otherwise would have remained mere academic abstractions: between nature and civilization, the individual and society, the self and the other, the self and the self. I see the hypocrisy and illogic of conventional wisdom. I see the tragic pointlessness of my own and others’ misery. These insights, filtered through a greater intelligence, would result, say, in something like A Passage to India. But I’m not a novelist, and I’m not a hero. I am not E.M. Forster, and I am not Alicia Appleman-Jurman.
Alicia’s life is a model of courage and integrity that puts mine to shame. Of course, the stakes were different, of a different order, on a different scale. Accommodation is impossible when you’re living life at the end of a gun barrel. Staying alive — escaping detection in a bunker, living through the winter without heat or adequate provisions, barely surviving on raw wheat and wild blueberries and the occasional potato, suffering beatings and tuberculosis and typhus and lice — does not give a person much leeway for compunction. It’s either do or die.
Indeed, even writing about myself, I am guilty of self-dramatization, self-aggrandizement. The nobler course would be to shut up, to bear my fate stoically. Refusing to attend GLSA meetings, refusing to become involved, afraid to confront my students with the truth that might change their lives (and my own), cowering fearfully behind the closet door, observing wistfully the progress that has been made over the last twenty years without my participation, I question my motives in speaking now.
But in purely personal terms writing is transcendence; writing is therapy. And there is a fundamental similarity between Alicia’s motivation in writing her book and my motivation in writing this essay. Like Alicia, I am inspired by outrage. Like Alicia, I am the victim of an injustice to which the majority of people seem blind. I am appalled by the stupidity of the world and terrified by its malevolence. And like Alicia, I have come to realize that asserting one’s “human dignity” against a society that would deny it is not merely an option under these circumstances, but necessary. For people are dying.
It is ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, and I am talking with my eighty-three-year-old mother long-distance on the phone, as I do every Sunday at this time. Usually, I have little to say. But this morning I have some news. I’ve heard from Jimmy, I tell her. He’s been in the hospital in Tampa.
“Did you know Jimmy has AIDS?” my mother once asked me. Jimmy’s mother had told her. “Did he get it from the man he lives with?” my mother asks now. “No,” I say. “Jimmy had an affair.”
On this Sunday morning I explain that this is the second or third time Jimmy has been hospitalized, that this time the problem has something to do with the circulation in his legs, a side effect of the drug he’s been taking to slow the progress of the virus. Nothing serious. He’s already out of the hospital and back home. His T-cell count is up, and he’s even managing to stay on a weight-training routine at the gym.
But one of these days, I tell my mother, I’ll receive a call from the man Jimmy lives with, and he’ll say Jimmy’s back in the hospital, and he’ll say it’s serious. He’ll say that Jimmy would like to see me, and I’ll have to go down there.
“No you won’t,” my mother says. “You don’t have to go.” She says this out of a prim regard for appearances, because she’s protective, because she’s worried about what people think, because she wants to spare me from contamination, both social and biological. She loves me. But she doesn’t understand the nature of my obligation, how close Jimmy and I are, what we mean to each other as persons. Or maybe she doesn’t want to admit the obvious connection, if it has ever occurred to her.
Surely there must remain in her mind’s attic, in a cobwebby corner, packed away in some battered cardboard box, under Christmas tree ornaments and scraps of wrapping paper and used ribbon, the knowledge that her son, aged five, asked his grandmother, who was at the sewing machine, to make him a wedding dress like his big sister Helen’s.
My grandmother made the absurd costume — a white satin skirt and a white net veil — which I took with me when I played with the Overton girls across the street. Then I let one of them wear it. I agreed, reluctantly I’m sure, to play the groom.
Now I smile at the conspiracy of shame that encapsulates such innocent realities over the years. And I applaud the uncritical devotion of grandmothers everywhere.