An Alabama Story

All the ridiculousness emerging from Alabama regarding gay marriage, particularly the state’s Chief Justice trying to give his religious beliefs the force of law, has gotten me thinking about Bama for the first time in a long while. The cowardice of justices refusing marriage licenses for homosexuals is more than matched by the courage of the homosexuals themselves in standing up for their rights in such a deeply reactionary state.

I lived in the south until I was 23, and as my southern friends know, my relationship to the south is complicated, but I wanted to share one of my own stories about Alabama. The racist history and the recent controversy and protests over gay marriage are parts of the state, certainly, but not the only ones. I spent three very happy, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally rewarding years at the University of Alabama, and I came away from the place a more tolerant, empathetic, and understanding human being because of my time there. In honor of the folks showing up to get married, I want to recall a friendship I had with a Bama student a quarter of a century ago.

For a couple of summers I worked for university housing cleaning dorms. I buffed floors, which is very peaceful work. There were about a dozen of us working, a real mix of characters. There was one stoner who never washed his clothes and who was suspicious of anyone he didn’t know because they might be a narc. There was another stoner who had every intention of being a DEA agent one day. There was a karate nut who wanted to join the Coast Guard because he thought it would be a good way to score drugs. There was a slacker who seemed to live on nothing but beer and cigarettes. There was an ex-Marine who was one of the most stupid and bigoted human beings I’ve ever had the displeasure to associate with. And there was Steve, a grad student and Navy veteran with whom I got on well. The rest weren’t very memorable.

So one day Steve and I were in a bar having a beer after work and he told me an amusing story. The Marine had taken him aside once and warned him that he should stay away from me because I was gay and if he hung out with me people would also think he’s gay. Think about the twisted mindset there. I don’t know exactly what gave the Marine the impression I was gay, but considering what a moronic bigot he was I can imagine. I don’t care about sports. I read a lot of books. I have no interest in having crude conversations about women with strangers (I save that for my friends!). I have a tendency to be what the know-nothings used to call a pointy-headed intellectual. Or maybe it’s because I really don’t give a damn whether people think I’m gay or not. Anyway, that was slightly amusing. It became ironic when Steve said something like, “There are guys most people don’t think are gay but actually are. I’m one of them.” So the Marine had been warning a gay man not to hang out with a straight man or people might think he was gay.

Steve wasn’t my first gay friend or acquaintance, although he’s the only person who ever came out to me when almost everyone else in his life thought he was straight. He was in his early thirties then, and even his parents didn’t know he was gay and, at that point, living with another man. Why he decided to share, I never knew for sure. I like to think that his sharing was a sign of respect, that he saw me as the sort of person who wasn’t going to shun him or out him or stop hanging out with him, that his being gay was for me a non-issue. Or maybe he was testing the waters with others as well. A couple of years later he came out openly and became a gay rights advocate at the university. He was also the first gay person I ever talked to about, well, being gay. Not the sex stuff, although we discussed that as well, but what it was like being him in a society, and especially a state, where a lot of people hated him just for existing.

Some parts I could understand already. The Marine already hated me just because he thought I was gay and he was actively spreading gossip about me that in his sad mind was malicious. And to some extent I understand wearing the mask or allowing close family members to not see certain parts of me they wouldn’t understand or approve of just to keep the peace. But all the protective subterfuge and deception, the constant sense in public that the wrong word or act could draw hatred or violence toward you? I had no idea. Because of Steve, and the other “Steves” in my life with backgrounds far different from mine, I learned more about the experience of being human, I learned how to move from indifference to empathy, and I learned to try (not always succeed, I should say) to treat people as individuals worthy in themselves of respect or disdain, but never as a representative of a category.

So thanks, Steve, wherever you are. We had a lot of good times together. And thanks, Alabama, for providing space and opportunity for me to grow more knowledgeable about and empathetic towards people who aren’t like me. You probably don’t hear that much.


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