Douglas Park Boys
“Squalid gratification” at the expense of gays
August 26, 1982
The disapproval, indeed disgust with which the general public regarded homosexuality among men in the 1980s demanded that they seek gratification in sordid settings, which justifies the disgust. The incident here described involved a man I knew and liked and worked with, a man who was better in every way than the men—whom I also knew—who were sneering at his disgrace.
This piece, like several among my older work, raises the now-controversial issue of repeating in print racial and sexual perjoratives in common use. As I have done elsewhere on this site, I have acquiesced in censorship to the extent of placing a fig leave atop the offending letters. I also censored the same term used here in an entirely disapproving way by Garry Wills—I feel obliged to apologize to Wills.
I was in a locker room at the Y When above the slap and chatter I heard a sneering voice say something about "those Douglas Park boys." Its owner's buddies reacted with knowing laughter that made me bristle with anger. A few weeks previous, three fairly well-known Springfield men had been arrested in a local park in a men's john frequented by homosexuals. The news had struck me at the time as sordid and a little sad—sad because I know that the decent people of Springfield, which is about as small as a town of 100,000 people can get, are utterly unforgiving of those whose vices stray from the conventional. More than reputations were lost; one of those involved quietly "resigned" his post with a socially-connected community group which had knowingly enriched itself for decades on donations from half the tax cheats, shoddy peddlers, and con artists in town. We can assume that his step quickened when he heard the gurgle of tar being heated up in the parking lot by his board of directors.
I am not gay myself, and thus usually worry no more about the problems of being gay than I do about getting into heaven or making par. But this little incident made me think, as they say. My irritation at these men being made the butt of easy jokes had partly to do with human sympathy, I suppose. Partly it had to do with what 1 knew of their mockers, most of whom are heterosexual only from lack of imagination and whose notion of a mature sexual relationship is one in which the man pays by check instead of cash. Partly, though, I was irritated at myself, for having momentarily forgotten that enduring animus toward gays persists with a virulence scarcely diminished by time.
It's not like it's hard to see or anything. For example, a few months earlier J., speaking at a public forum about the ways issues pertaining to human sexuality are portrayed in the local press, observed that homosexuality tends to be written about only in terms of deviate behavior. (Gay bars, men's rooms, and bus stations are no more typical of gays than swingers' clubs, singles bars, and wife beating are of heteros, except in newspapers). Privately, J. occasionally complains that people who would never dream of using words like "kike" or even "girl" in its more demeaning sense make homophobic jests comfortably.
It seems ironic that in an era of sexual liberation, when alternative varieties of sexual preference are talked about in public more openly than ever before, there should be this lingering contempt for gays. Of course, that very liberation may fertilize bad feelings. We tend to hate the things we fear the most, after all, and as accustomed sex roles have been redefined many men have become certain about what manhood is, and means. Inevitably a certain amount of this discomfiture shows itself as a nervous and self-defensive homophobia.
Mostly, though, I think it's just that the liberation hasn't happened yet. There is a stratum of sophisticated straight opinion which assumes that the grosser forms of anti-gay sentiment are relics of the past, like segregated lunch counters. Because of the papers they read and the people they know, they tend to know more about New York and San Francisco than they do about central Illinois, and more importantly, mistake the more tolerant atmosphere of those cultural islands for that of the country as a whole.
Yet even in Washington, D.C., (as the retiring gay head of the U.S. Legal Services Corp. told the New York Times in March) government officials still feel compelled to keep their sexual preferences a secret to avoid official reprisals. One wonders how many gays working for the state in Springfield still lead such closeted lives. True, a few Illinois cities such as Evanston and Champaign-Urbana have enacted ordinances to protect the rights of gays in housing and employment. But state gay activists regarded it as a triumph that five gay rights bills (which eventually were roundly defeated) were even voted out of a General Assembly committee onto the House floor.
Apparently big-city newspaper editors hang around in locker rooms too. The Chicago Tribune, a paper ordinarily so heedless of propriety that it publishes Ronald Reagan's speeches on economic affairs, still regards homosexuality as the love that dare not speak its name; last week it ran an editorial about the recent rumors of homosexual conduct between members of Congress and pages without once using the word "homosexual" or "gay." Instead, it referred to it as "a squalid kind of sex gratification."
(Interesting, too, that the Trib that day ran a "Form letter for college students" which said in part, "Dear Mom. You were wrong about my roommate. He's (a) not a pothead (b) not stealing stuff out of my desk (c) not gay." This from a woman whose husband probably collects underwear catalogs.
One is accustomed to associating retrograde social attitudes to Chicago, of course, but this sort of opinion survives even in places like New Jersey, where a jury not long ago showed that it is still permissible for a wife (in this case Mrs. Nancy Kissinger) to throttle a person who accuses her husband (the former Secretary of State) of being gay. Had someone called hubby a war criminal—a more heinous charge, and one which more closely approaches the truth—the jury probably would have found the allegation insufficient provocation. A man can order other men killed in the U.S. of the '80s, in other words, but he can't sleep with them.
Homosexuality remains a dirty enough word in the minds of enough people that one can smear other people with it. Take for example the rumor that Gov. Jim Thompson is gay. This story (made plausible by his forty years of bachelorhood) surfaced in the dying days of the 1976 campaign. In his 1979 book, Big Jim Thompson of Illinois, Robert Hartley recounts how aides to Thompson's opponent—an oafish fellow from Chicago whose name I've forgotten—"began calling in person on newspaper editors to plant rumors of Thompson's homosexuality." It had no effect on the election, perhaps because it got no wide circulation. The story first made the rounds in Chicago when Thompson was U.S. Attorney, and Thompson has always denied it. In the absence of any proof one must assumed is not true, but there are those of us who would think better of Thompson if it were; he would have shown a willingness to depart from the conventional in at least one major policy area.
Yet another sign of our accelerating retreat from tolerance is the resurgence—or what I perceive to be a resurgence—of the term "faggot" as a general purpose pejorative among teenage boys. It is seldom used literally, to accuse its target of homosexual behavior. Rather it is applied, like nukes, because it is the most damaging weapon at hand; because it is the worst thing kids think they can say about another boy, it is the best insult to use.
What is wrong with this use of "faggot" is what is wrong about epithets. I have been the target of name-callers from time to time. I objected to it mainly because the names usually offend my sense of accuracy. I associated with no n----rs when I was called "n----r-lover" as a boy, although I enjoyed the company of several African-American friends. And only people as resolutely ignorant of politics as a schoolteacher would have denounced me as a communist, as at least one did a few years later.
As Garry Wills (writing in, of all places, Illinois Issues magazine) noted in a recent essay, "We all learn, indecently early, the words that can break friendships, wound hearts, end worlds—words like kike and spick and n----r and whore and fag. We can reach with words through another person's shield of privacy and dignity." (Including, I feel compelled to note, shields of undeserved dignity.)
I am not so silly as to propose that we quit calling each other names. Names are often the only weapons the powerless have against the powerful. But like any weapon they should be wielded circumspectly and in a good cause. Let us resolve to put no more blood of innocent bystanders on our hands. □