I had a romance novel inside me, but I paid three sailors to beat it out of me with steel pipes.
October 11, 2010
Isaac Katz, Son Of 'Proud Bigot' Professor Jonathan Katz, Comes Out.
When I was perhaps 10 years old, my brother called me a faggot. Neither of us was old enough to understand the concept of sexual orientation; he was merely teasing in the way older brothers do and using a word that had surely passed from the public sphere into his vocabulary via sheer osmosis. My father overheard him, however, and reacted in a manner I had never before seen. He was genuinely angry: not with violence (he never has been violent), but with pure, unadulterated offense. Profanity was rather strictly forbidden for us children, but the word "faggot," to my father, was simply beyond the pale.
Why was the slur so offensive to my dad? Not because the anti-gay slur is so contemptuous but, rather, because to merely call another person homosexual is to insult him or her in the worst way. My dad was angry not because my brother used a curse word — but because, simply and literally, he said that I was gay.
In the past month, a 13-year-old Minnesota boy named Seth Walsh, who had been taunted for being gay, died in the hospital days after hanging himself from a tree; a 13-year-old Houston boy named Asher Brown shot himself after repeated homophobic bullying; 18-year-old Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly filmed him having sex with another man (though it is not clear that the roommate was specifically homophobic or would have done the same if Clementi were with a woman); and a 15-year-old Indiana boy named Billy Lucas hanged himself in his barn after being tormented by classmates.
After Lucas' death, advice columnist Dan Savage launched an online campaign entitled "It gets better." Countless gay men and women have now posted videos on YouTube, telling — and demonstrating — that life does get better for gay teens.
More than a decade has passed since my brother used that notorious homophobic slur. I am now 22, and, as it happens, I am gay. Further, I, personally, was depressed throughout much of my adolescence. Although anti-gay bullying was never a problem for me as a student at Clayton High School, being in the closet hardly helped my mental well-being. I was hospitalized for depression the summer after my sophomore year in college and tried to overdose on pills later that fall.
My father is a physics professor at Washington University. Years ago, he wrote an article on his personal website in which he justified homophobia as a "moral judgment" about a person's actions. Even if one does not accept Judeo-Christian morality, he wrote, gays should be shunned because they are physically and morally responsible for the AIDS epidemic. Any person "cursed with unnatural sexual desires" should suppress those desires. Further, even if gays are thoroughly safe and monogamous, they are still morally culpable for the promiscuity that spread AIDS in the past, just as people who join the Ku Klux Klan without physically engaging in violence still share the responsibility for past Klan actions. Though one should "not engage in violence against homosexuals," my father argued, one should 'stay away from them." The last line of the essay is as follows: "I am a homophobe, and proud."
It is harder to stay away from homosexuals, I would imagine, when your son is one. When I told my dad I was gay, his immediate response was, "No, you're not." (My mom, by the way, was and is more supportive.) When my insistence finally overrode his denials, he echoed his online essay that I should deny who I am rather than to engage in an act so abhorrent as to love another man.
At the height of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill this past summer, Energy Secretary Steven Chu nominated my father to a small and elite group of scientists working to help plug the gusher; when gay rights groups protested, he was forced out of the position. As it happens, I don't believe that anyone's personal opinions have any impact on whether they can help fight oil spills. At one point in the summer, engineers used a procedure called "top kill" to try to stanch the oil spill; my father predicted that it would fail — it did — and suggested an alternative, later tested successfully on a small scale, that might have worked. Would my father have helped stop the gush of oil if only he had remained on Chu's team? That's presumptuous. To me, though, it is undeniable that removing him from the team for reasons unrelated to his scientific knowledge, academic credentials or intellectual capacity was a mistake.
I can't change my dad's thoughts about homosexuality overnight. Underlying his opinions and those of other homophobes is the belief that homosexuality is not ingrained within gay men and women, that someone attracted to people of the same sex should simply choose not to be a "practicing homosexual." That this idea is absurd should be obvious to all straight people, unless they can identify a time in their lives when they chose to be straight and not gay, and would gladly become intimate with a same-sex partner if only they chose to.
Last spring, almost three years after attempting suicide, I graduated cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania. Once I accepted myself, coming out to my parents was a rather easy thing to do. Telling them that I wanted to use my outrageously expensive college degree to move to Los Angeles and try to make it as a screenwriter was rather more difficult for me to work up the nerve.
Americans' increasing acceptance of homosexuality is proof that, indeed, it does get better. I still live in St. Louis and am hopeful and optimistic that I will begin film school next fall — my parents did manage to convince me that hurrying off to LA with little more than the clothes on my back and a dream would probably not be the best way to break into an industry as insular as the film world. I am happier than I have been in many years. To struggling gay and lesbian teens in St. Louis and beyond, then, as a young gay man I gladly repeat Dan Savage's words: It does get better.