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Jive talking (continued)

After the audience of 200 students and others tied to the Loyola community gave me mildly sustained applause, White began his talk. I’m not sure what I was expecting. The man, after all, was a Southern evangelical Protestant with strong ties to the viciously homophobic Focus on the Family. Still, I had visited the Louisiana Family Forum Web site and was charmed by an elegantly posed portrait of the judge with his family — he has seven children ranging in age from six to 31. Given also that Judge White was just that — a judge, albeit a retired one from the municipal court of Baton Rouge — I assumed he would do what I had done: shape his argument around legal and constitutional issues.

Okay, it didn’t help that I had screwed up a joke about my being a nice Catholic boy who taught Jewish studies at a WASP college. But imagine my surprise when Judge White kicked off his portion of the debate by implying that all gay people were mentally ill. The 1973 decision by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to take homosexuality off its list of disorders, he argued, was a gay-liberationist plot. He then went on at length about people having sex with animals, which, according to the judge, would logically follow from the legalization of same-sex marriage. He also implied that gay activists were lobbying the APA to change its diagnostic profile for pedophilia.

The judge then read a long, very lame humor piece (now circulating on right-wing Web sites) in which a San Francisco city clerk quits her job when faced with having to marry a series of increasingly deranged people — zoophiles, male siblings, and a schizophrenic with two personalities who wants to marry himself. He followed that with a piece from a Bangor, Maine, newspaper in which man, who was obviously mentally ill, announced that he had married his pet dog. White proceeded to paint a world run amok with political correctness, where grade-school students are forced to undergo sexuality "retraining" and queer activists topple the Catholic Church with anti-discrimination laws. Finally, he declared that same-sex marriage was "insulting" to heterosexuals because it insinuated that two parents of the opposite sex just weren’t necessary. A point that struck me as taking the "what about me?" politics of the 1990s too far.

But even more surprising than the judge’s "case" — made haphazardly, since he obviously hadn’t prepared a debate speech — was my reaction to it. Sure, I was a little angered by the judge’s blatant, ugly, and often juvenile homophobia, but I was also deeply indignant. I had been stood up at the altar of civic engagement. I had taken the time and the care to write a speech dressed up with logical, judicial arguments. My opponent, on the other hand, merely spewed rote insults adorned in rhetorical rags, which had only the vaguest connection to the matter at hand. For a moment during the judge’s weird presentation, I felt like someone invited to a costume party who shows up in his Anna May Wong costume, only to discover that it is a formal affair.

To be fair, some members of the audience snickered at parts of White’s speech — and I confess to privately taking great delight in this. But in my response, I carefully avoided ridiculing his silly non-arguments and attempted to show that his desire to sustain families and children would be helped by same-sex marriage. White’s response? All culture wars, he declared, come down to "Who sez?" Then, waving his Bible at the audience, he announced: "I say that He sez." There was only minor stirring. I think the audience was a little stunned by such nonverbal theatrics. The student responses, however, broke through the mood. The two men for the pro-gay-marriage side were succinct and pungent; their opponents, a woman and man — both members of Compass, the school’s conservative Catholic group — argued theologically and legally against same-sex marriage, and while I disagreed with them, they were intelligent and respectful to the topic, to the forum, and to gay people.

IN RETROSPECT, of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised by Judge White’s antics. The bottom line is that there are no good legal reasons to oppose same-sex marriage. That’s why he had to resort to innuendo, lies, and insults. It didn’t even matter that this wasn’t the venue or the crowd for it — the judge was a man on a mission, ill-prepared for argument or common sense. These days I never really encounter — at close range, anyway — people who vehemently disagree with me or condemn who I am. I had looked forward to spirited debate with the enemy, and all I came away with was — apart from disrespect — a deep sadness. Perhaps more than anything, my sadness was rooted in the judge’s constant invocation of bestiality to attack same-sex relationships. How sad that a man who professes Christianity — or any religion, really — would feel compelled to stoop so low to score points. But it also reminded me of an observation made by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a major 20th-century American Jewish thinker: we lose the right to worship God when we deny the humanity in others. Which is, of course, another way of saying that if this is what our enemy has to fight with, we have already won.

Michael Bronski is the author of Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s Press, 2003). He can be reached at mabronski@aol.com

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Issue Date: March 26 - April 1, 2004
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