Living the Questions
BY Tyler Helms
October 05 2010 5:10 PM ET
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.