Wednesday, November 3, 2010

We’re straight shooters at The Ind. That’s what got us into trouble.


The Independent’s cover story two weeks ago about the late, larger-than-life bon vivant Wally Romero was done with good intentions that for many in our community were undone by poor editorial judgment.

Many here at the paper knew Romero or at least moved through the same social circles, and his story is poignant and compelling — heartbreaking even — in part because of the circumstances surrounding his death: the fire in a house with no electricity; the rosary in his hand; the downward spiral of drug abuse and arrests.

Romero’s was a tragic end that charted a quest for identity. Morbidly obese for much of his life, he had lost more than 200 pounds through gastric bypass surgery. And as a gay man raised in a Catholic family who didn’t “come out” until his early 40s, he was by most accounts still finding his place in our “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture.

And that’s where we tripped. Badly.

During the editing process leading up to publication, when I encountered the term “homosexual lifestyle” in the story’s introduction, I had a vaguely unsettled feeling about the expression. No red flag, just a sense far back in my mind that it wasn’t quite right.

Use of the term wasn’t meant as a slight, but some readers took offense.

Within days of the issue’s publication, I received an email from Stephen Handwerk, a Lafayette resident who is co-chair of the political action committee for the Stonewall Democrats, the counterpart to the Log Cabin Republicans and, one would assume, a much more robust population since their political party isn’t ideologically opposed to equal rights for the LGBT community. (That’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, for our quaintly square readers.)

Handwerk took The Independent to task, pointing out that the term “homosexual” is clinical and, more important, code for “sinner” and “deviant” among the religious right. This code-speak earned the American Family Association embarrassment a couple of years ago when one of its affiliated websites, programmed to automatically aggregate culture-war news reports on such topics as gay marriage and to replace the word “gay” with “homosexual,” ran the headline “Homosexual eases into 100 final at Olympic trials.” The story was about American sprinter Tyson Gay, who was also referred to in the article as “Tyson Homosexual.” I’m sure he got a kick out of that. It was a window into the propaganda techniques employed by the religious right and a reminder that the intolerant are at least marginally tech-savvy.

But Stephen took particular umbrage to a quote in the story: “A lot of people in the gay community, who have this amazing drive and charisma, their lives at some point implode because they are addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex — because of the shame they feel about being gay.”
The quote was one of a handful tied to the section of the story about Romero coming out as a gay man. It was from a friend of Romero’s who is also gay, which wasn’t noted in the story.

“Suggesting that LGBT individuals are, for the most part, dysfunctional and ashamed of themselves, which causes them to be self destructive — that is dangerous and clearly not true,” Handwerk wrote in an email.

In light of the source of the quote, this is perhaps an internal debate best left within the LGBT community. The quote does sound like a generalization, but I’ve come to learn that the person who said it had a number of talented gay friends and acquaintances who, like Romero, abused drugs and alcohol — often with disastrous consequences. He was speaking of them.
The decent thing to do at this point is to simply apologize to our LGBT readers, and to all readers for perpetuating persistent stereotypes and misnomers.

We blew it.

Our gaffes in the execution of the story are evidence of a curtain that remains between straights and gays. It’s gauzier and more translucent than it was a generation ago. But it’s still a curtain. And I’ll admit, my gaydar is Cold War era; it’s clunky and makes a sound akin to sand in the gears. It identifies only flamboyantly effeminate men and women in suits, and even then I’m sure it’s frequently wrong since it was calibrated by popular culture and my middle-class upbringing. I have no doubt I encounter many gay people on a daily basis and just don’t realize it and, frankly, that’s as it should be. Their sexual orientation is theirs. Not mine. When we all get to the point when gay doesn’t matter, when one isn’t defined by it and certainly not defiled by it, won’t we all be better off?

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