On the otherwise ordinary summer morning of December 15, 2014, an unprecedented terror gripped Sydney. In the heart of the city’s business district, an unhinged Islamic radical named Man Haron Monis strode into a Lindt chocolate cafe with a sawed-off shotgun, took 18 people hostage, and began an anguishing 16-hour standoff. Australian police forces stormed the cafe in the early hours of the next day, but by then the cafe’s manager, Tori Johnson, had been killed.
Because of an ongoing investigation, there are no formal accounts of exactly what transpired in the tense lead-up to the tragedy’s climax, but unconfirmed media reports indicate that Johnson was killed after attempting to wrestle the gunman for control of the weapon. In the final blitz, another hostage, a barrister named Katrina Dawson, was killed in the hailstorm of bullets. It was quickly reported that she was married with three young children, and that Johnson had a “partner” of 14 years. Then we waited, or at least I did, to find out whether his long-term partner was a man.
A hero is just like everyone else, only better. Australia would celebrate Johnson as a national hero if he were made of straw. He’s a hero, period. In his final hours, the only exceptional thing about him was his humanity, and some argued that to bring his sexual orientation into it is irrelevant and, furthermore, disrespectful to his memory. Johnson’s gayness may be incidental to his bravery, but it is relevant. It matters that the hero was gay in the same way it would matter if the villain were a gunwoman. It thwarts perceptions. Heroes are always presumed heterosexual. That’s why you’ve never heard the term “straight hero.”
Courage of the hero variety is typically thought of in terms of daring rescues from burning buildings or badass military might. Its ideal is deeply entrenched in straight, macho behavior — so much so that if you search online for “gay courage,” the first result is Courage International, a Catholic group preaching celibacy to gay men with therapy that includes playing football and smoking cigars. Appropriating the word, the group seeks to confirm that a loud, proud homosexual is not courageous, but a coward who will never live up to his potential. His manliness has been called into question, and by extension, even his humanity is corrupt.
In a life-or-death crisis, the stereotype of the gay man is of a person nowhere near the proverbial action; he might be valued for a cuddle or comic relief, but is not relied upon to save the day. Nor is he expected to face an attacker or grab for the gun. Conventional wisdom would have the gay barista hiding beneath the counter or slinking out a side door to safety. Gay men are often not expected to be the type to jump on the grenade to save their fellow comrades. Yet that has happened time and time again.
Daniel Hernandez ran toward the gunfire in Tucson, Ariz., when Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011. He sat her upright, plugged her gushing head wound with his hand, and is credited with saving her life.
The Rev. Mychal Judge was one of the first on the scene at the World Trade Center towers when they were hit on September 11, 2001, rushing to assist first responders and pray for the fallen and, in the course of this action, became the tragedy’s first official fatality.
On the same day, Mark Bingham joined a small band of Passengers to overcome the terrorists in the cockpit and crash Flight 93 into a Pennsylvania field instead of its intended target.
These men defy the idea of gays as cowardly, and yet despite real world examples, the heroic gay man fails to capture the popular imagination. In action films, gays will not appear unless as the brunt of a joke, a shady Bond villain, or a spineless sissy fleeing for his life, marionette arms flailing overhead. When the real men take heroic action in Independence Day, a hysterical Harvey Fierstein cowers beneath a desk to call his mommy. In the bloated Oscar-winning epic Braveheart, the prince’s male lover is a sniveling wimp who exists only so that a real man can flick him out of the castle tower to his death.
Chillingly echoed this year when the Islamic State group celebrated homosexuals being tossed from a tall building to their deaths as crowds cheered in Mosul’s town square below, films like Braveheart remind us how we are perceived. As we grow up, these depictions of gays through the prism of heterosexual scorn are filed away inside our psyches. If we let them, they instruct us how to perceive ourselves.
The idea of confronting a hostile maniac or being dropped into a combat zone will almost assuredly have gay men conjuring camp consequences from inhaling Aunt Pittypat’s smelling salts, to a rescue from a strapping Navy SEAL. Like the Cowardly Lion in Oz freaking out because he’s not fearsome like other lions, the internal and external concern is that although we are men, we are not man enough.
How easy it is to value simplistic, hypermasculine heroism, but discredit the moral courage it takes to come out (especially in places like Iran or Russia) and live openly, despite the increased threat of danger, ostracism, and violence. It is important not to discount the immense bravery it takes to be a gay activist in Cameroon, or to have been Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing, or any of the countless martyrs who suffered for their integrity and a fairer future.
Those who answer to their own truths have given themselves permission to question the authority of a father, family, society — even God. For the courageous people who have come out in the direst circumstances, there is nothing more intimidating left to fear, not even looking down the barrel of a loaded shotgun.
In this way, moral courage might be the most effective boot camp for the risks and sacrifices associated with conventional courage. Seeing that he had underestimated himself, the lion comes to believe in the bravery he always possessed. Likewise, the perception that gay men are deficient in the key ingredients of heroism is shattered each time someone exposes it for a common charade perpetrated by the man behind the curtain. We had the guts all along. There is nothing discouraging in our humanity, and when put to the test we might be the same as everyone else, only better.