COMMENTARY: A thumbs-up shortly before my 2004 flight with the Blue Angels was nothing more than a snapshot of the reality I wanted the viewers of WTOK-TV to see. My flight with the Blue Angels that day was anything but a thumbs-up. It was actually cut short because I ended up vomiting everywhere when the pilot turned the plane upside down. And as we coasted back to the Air Force base, the pilot would tell me about the origins of the Blue Angels: created by the Navy to essentially be a recruitment office with wings, depicting them as the “star of every air show,” far from the realities of joining the Navy. The Blue Angels were nothing more than an illusion of enlisted life. I would find that much of my time in Meridian, Miss., was guided by similar false realities; reality was replaced by illusions created by the community I lived in. These illusions would determine what was right and wrong, true and false, good and bad ... often created out of fear of the unknown. And while I would challenge these illusions in the years to follow, it wasn’t until this past year that I could see just how dangerous they could be. And in light of recent adolescent suicides and the existence of discriminatory policies like “don’t ask, don’t tell,” I am still living the question of just how responsible we each are for the impact of the false realities we continue to perpetuate.
Beyond the stunt acts of flying in a fighter plane, towns like Meridian offered a unique perspective to journalists on the military, its culture, its value system, and its impact on the families that lived around it. Over time I discovered that the military had an odd way of creating its own reality. In times of war, there were no negative stories to be aired in that small town; “Leave that to Diane Sawyer,” they would say. The Pentagon, though not allowed to limit journalists, strongly encouraged stories of happy homecomings. Local politicians would urge our news director to feature stories that portrayed the area’s military bases in a positive light. So many days, at 5, 6, and 10, I along with my colleagues at WTOK-TV would help create the illusion of how things “should be” and “would be.” Even “don’t ask, don’t tell” was spun as a positive step to protect gay and straight service personnel.
In hindsight it was nothing more than an illusion created out of fear of the reality.
The more time I spent in Meridian, the more I realized these illusions were not limited to military bases. In a town often governed by the rules of public opinion, it wasn’t common to be openly gay. While Mississippi is a far cry from the gay catwalk of Eighth Avenue in New York, there were still plenty of gay men and women. But since community norms didn’t support the “homosexual lifestyle,” I would soon find people were forced to create their own illusion. Gay men created straight lives. They married women, had children, and did all that was “right,” according to that community. But just because some people refuse to accept a gay person, it doesn't make that person any less gay. And despite engaging in their own illusion, the feelings that accompanied that reality would send them into a world of extramarital affairs. Ultimately, the reality that these men hid behind this illusion was a secret “men’s club” made up of similar men seeking to live a gay life on the side.
Because I was a young gay male made visible by the nature of my job, these men
often approached me. I remember being propositioned by a well-known
community leader during an awkward steam-room encounter at the gym. Or
another time by a married doctor who slipped his number to me after an
interview. They seemed to envy my life out of the closet; they were eager to have
the relationships their hearts wanted but burdened by the illusion they
had to live by. There would be many more offers, conversations, and
correspondence with this secret “men’s club” during the year and half I
lived in Meridian. This insight would fall into the back of my mind once
I left Mississippi, moving on to Los Angeles and New York, where the
closeted life was far less prevalent.
It would come back to my
attention when I was faced with my own challenge of reality and
illusions. After hiding my HIV status for nearly two years and then
disclosing it publicly in late 2009, I was flooded with
correspondence. Among the hundreds of
notes were two from gentlemen in Meridian. Though
separate, they seemingly shared the same eagerness to escape the
secrets that guided their life. But these two notes would be
overshadowed by a much larger burden they now faced. These two men, one
with a wife and three children and the other married only five years, were now HIV-positive. At the time of their notes, neither one of their
wives knew, making their reality now dangerous to those they loved.
I used to say I couldn’t blame them for living a double life. The thought
of coming out in that town must have been terrifying. But for this, the
blame no doubt was theirs to share. I say share, because I can’t help
but think that those of us who make up those communities are partly to
blame. But still, the supporters of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the
protesters who challenge marriage equality, and the bullies who scare
young gay boys and girls to the point that they fear there is no reason left to
live — all are partly to blame. Shouldn’t we all be held accountable for
the results of the actions we take or perhaps don’t take? Shouldn’t we
hold communities collectively responsible for the results of our
actions, policies, and conversations?
I would argue that “don’t ask,
don’t tell” has reinforced the idea that gays don’t belong and need to
stay closeted. When schools across America avoid talking about HIV,
same-sex relationships, and overall homosexuality as a very real and
normal experience, they create an environment that encourages unhealthy
sexual behavior and paints safe sex as merely a way to avoid
Much like I watched the military skillfully create its
own reality, our local communities seem to be doing the same: creating
policies, reinforcing religious rules, and creating laws that uphold
nothing more than an illusion to combat the fear of reality. The reality
is, gay individuals are not less than nor more than straight people.
In cities across America, discriminatory policies and the lack of equal
rights create an illusion that becomes destructive to the young boys and
girls those actions were meant to protect. Until we can collectively
agree that such policies, rhetoric, and proposed “rights” are not only
wrong but also dangerous, I have to wonder if we are not all to blame
for the unfortunate results of secrets lived in small towns around the
world. And I would go as far as to question if we are not all to blame
in part for lives cut short out of fear of living their own reality in
the face of our illusions.
I think back to that day, my time in Meridian,
and those two men as an inspiration to break that illusion and live in
reality, live honestly, and vocally support others who do the same. It's a
responsibility I can't ignore, for I fear our reality, our rights, and
our wrongs are often hidden in the things we don’t ask and all too
often in the things we don’t tell.