Gay Rights and Uncle Mark

The passage of Proposition 8 in California, effectively banning gay marriage, was a devastating blow to the cause of Civil Rights. Like much of America, I have been basking in the glow of President Obama’s victory, while simultaneously keeping in mind that many great battles for justice and equality still lay ahead. Some of my closest friends will disagree with the things they are about to read; but I respectfully ask that you read everything.

Like much of America, I was homophobic—or at least partially homophobic. I made gay jokes (and in all honesty, still do from time to time), frequently looked down my nose at homosexuality, and in general didn’t understand or care to understand gay people. Perhaps I should mention that I was 13 years-old at the time.

Something seemingly insignificant happened when I was in my early teens that would forever change the way I viewed homosexuality. I was spending the summer in Connecticut with my family, when a conversation about “fruits” and “fairies” broke out among the adults around the dinner table. By contrast to some of the homophobic things I have heard (and sadly, have even said myself), this conversation wasn’t that bad. Most of it was comprised of silly gay jokes, and talk about how weird and unnatural that kind of thing was.

My grandfather had been silent during most of the conversation. He often didn’t weigh in on these sorts of things. He worked anywhere from twelve to eighteen hours a day, and when he came home from work he was tired, and seldom had time for conversation of any sort. But just as this dialog was getting more and more heated, with comments going back and forth about how “something was wrong with those fruits and fairies,” my grandfather spoke up in his booming voice.

“I knew some of those boys back when I was in the Navy,” he said. “They were nice enough boys—never gave me no problems. But I never got why they were the way they were. Still don’t. I’ll never know why some people are that way, and I guess it really doesn’t matter. Some people are just that way. It doesn’t make them bad. And that’s that.”

The conversation was over after that.

If you knew my grandfather, then you know that when he was younger, he was a man of few words (although when he got older, into his 70s and 80s, there was no stopping him from talking). I knew this as a teenager, which made his brief declaration so profound. There was sternness and an emotional tenor in his voice that I had never heard before, which let me know that his statements were coming from a place within him that I was unaware of.

I thought about what my grandfather had said about “some people”—which was his way of saying “fruit” or “fairy”—and sat with it for many years, trying to figure out the exact meaning of it all. Many years later, I was making some rude comments about gays, and my mother became quite upset. My mom, being perhaps the coolest person on the planet, is slow to read me the riot act, but during this one homophobic tirade, she let me have it. She started out by so eloquently calling me a “nigger.”

My jaw hit the floor at the sound of my white mother calling me a nigger, a word I had never heard her use before in any context. She certainly had my attention, as she went on to explain that the way I was so liberally using the word faggot, in such a hateful and demeaning way, was no different than the way others use the word nigger. Her point was made loud and clear. She then told me all the things any decent person would say in arguing against homophobia, and then she said, “You shouldn’t judge people just because they are gay. How do you know you don’t have anyone in your family that is gay? All of those ugly things you’re saying, you could be saying about some one you love.”

My mom’s words hit me like a ton of bricks, and I remembered the things my grandfather had said years earlier, and suddenly a very clear picture of my family came into focus.

Marshall Lewis Walker, Jr., affectionately known to me as Uncle Mark, was my father’s older brother. He died of leukemia in 1973 when I was only four years-old, but I have several very vivid memories of him. The strongest of those memories was when me, my mother, my cousin Sean, and his mother, my Aunt Jacquie, all went to visit Uncle Mark in New York City, and we all went to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. We had a great time, and Uncle Mark bought me and Sean these souvenir plastic gorillas, that went with the stuffed monkeys he had already given us. One of the things Sean and I have in common is our love of gorillas and monkeys. We were both born in 1968, the year of the monkey, and I often wonder if Uncle Mark was aware of this when he gave us those stuffed monkeys and the plastic gorillas. I wonder how much of my fascination with apes and chimps and gorillas and orangutans was the result of my uncle who died shortly before his 29th birthday.

Uncle Mark lived in New York City, he had a big job at Chase Manhattan Bank—one of the first black executives in the company—and he lived with a white man named Scotty. I don’t remember much about Scotty, other than the fact that he had blonde hair, he treated us really nice, and him and my Uncle Mark slept in the same room. At four years-old, I didn’t understand what any of that could possibly mean. Many years later, I understood.

No one ever talked about Uncle Mark’s sexuality. I never heard his name mentioned along side words like “fag” or “queer,” but he was, most definitely gay.

I can’t pretend to understand what it was like to be openly gay, especially in the early 1970s, when the very concept was still so new and radical. This was, after all, just a few short years after the Stonewall riots that lead to the modern gay liberation movement. I often wish my uncle were still alive, not just so he could tell me about my father and his childhood, but so he could share with me the stories of how he found the strength to embrace a life that was, and continues to be, frowned on by much of America. Just as I can’t understand what it is like to be gay, I also can’t conceive of the courage he had at that time.

Twenty years ago, despite knowing that Uncle Mark was gay, I still harbored homophobic feelings that now make me ashamed. I was vocal in these feelings, and though I would like to think I was not as bad as some, I know that I was worse than others. Then, one of my best friends in the entire world came out of the closet to everyone but me. All around me my friends were talking about how Jay had come out of the closet, and I refused to believe it. “Until he tells me he’s a fag, I won’t believe it,” was my response.

It took weeks before my friend and I sat down to talk things over. He told me he was a gay. I asked him if he was sure. “Have you really given women enough of a chance?” I asked.

“I’ve been gay as long as I can remember,” he said.

Then I asked him why he had come out of the closet with everyone else, but waited so long to tell me.

“I didn’t think you could handle it,” he said. “I didn’t think you would still be my friend.”

To this day, that was one of the most devastating things another human being has ever said to me. I was hurt that a close friend would ever think that I was so small-minded that I could not accept his sexuality. But the truth was that I was so small-minded that I was not accepting of homosexuality, and my friend had every reason to believe our friendship would not withstand his coming out of the closet.

I don’t want to get into the argument of nature versus nurture, because this is not the place for that, nor is it what this is about right now. This is about me, and how I began to change my view of homosexuality.

The victory of Proposition 8 in California is a slap in the face to the memory of my uncle, and to the lives of my many friends who have found the courage to come out of the closet. When I think of the passing of Prop 8, I think of all my friends being forcibly pushed back into the closet, and that is wrong. Not just plain wrong, but absofuckinglutely wrong.

When the news reported that Prop 8 had passed, my first reaction was, “We win some battles, and we lose some battles. Let’s all take a deep breath, and prepare to fight the good fight another day.”

But two days after the election, I must admit I was wrong in thinking that. We must not prepare to fight the good fight another day. We must keep fighting today, and every day, until our gay brothers and sisters are no longer feared or hated simply by virtue of who they chose to love. Think about it: there are few things uglier in the world than hating someone simply because of who they love.

To all of my friends—homosexual and heterosexual—who feel the sting of defeat from the passage of Prop 8, now is not the time to give in to sadness or despair. The fight continues. Your battle is my battle. It will not be easy, but the other option, living lives of denial and persecution is even more difficult.

It didn’t happen this week, my friends. And it may not happen any time soon. But we will get to a place where the love of two consenting adults will be recognized as a legitimate state of emotional consciousness no matter what the gender of the adults may be. Some of us are already there. Others are not. But as someone who once could not see the truth, and now sees it quite plainly, believe me when I say that it can happen.

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