On May 15, 2007, long-time gay rights foe Jerry Falwell was found dead on the floor of his office at Liberty University. Falwell had made a career of gay baiting from his tirade against Tinky Winky, an allegedly gay Teletubby in 1999, to blaming 9-11 on God’s wrath stemming from a mixture of gays and “abortionists.”
As information concerning Falwell’s demise percolated to the level of national news a few commentators wasted no time celebrating. Christopher Hitchens wrote his infamous commentary, “Faith Based Fraud,” in Vanity Fair and ran the gamut of television news programs. Bill Maher dedicated the final three minutes of his New Rules segment to Falwell (who had been an occasional guest on Maher’s previous show) to the new rule “death isn’t always sad.” Even Fred Phelps chimed in claiming Falwell was burning in hell.
Phelps notwithstanding the celebrants, who extended into the general public, were pleased that someone who had been a politically powerful voice for regression had finally met his end. Still others, perhaps the more conscionable among us, were shocked by the notion of delighting in the death of another human being. Yet this idea is so deeply embedded in our lives that we tend to miss it.
Let’s start on a personal level. Coming out is a matter of personal choice and the manner in which it occurs varies among individuals. This is made plain when coming out to extended family members. Often in conservative families gay men and women are very selective to whom they bare their secret. Normally those left in the dark are in the oldest generation. These are the generations that can still remember a time when open homosexuality was nearly non-existent.
Whether we’re honest with ourselves about it or not many of us have found ourselves waiting for this generation to die. In many cases people put off coming out until near middle age in fear of the repercussions of informing their elder family members. In the back of their minds lurks the idea “when this person dies I can truly be free.”
The broader gay community has been similarly waiting. After Massachusetts’ legalization of gay marriage in 2004 the subsequent (perhaps consequent) backlash in many states was done at the hands of older voters. Polling among young voters consistently shows a favorable attitude toward gay rights and acceptance (or apathy) toward homosexuality in general. Eight years since that famous decision, a handful of states have extended marriage or partnership rights.
North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius remarked on Amendment One’s passage that gay marriage was a generational issue and that the amendment would probably be overturned in 20 years. Gay rights proponents frequently make this appeal to probability that at some undetermined point in the future gay rights will flourish as a new generation takes over. It’s not a pleasant thought to consider that, for many of us, that generation includes our parents and grandparents. We also make note of the ages of our most vehemently anti-gay legislators and jurists.
It goes without saying that polling shows an inescapable trend among youth of positive attitudes toward gay rights and the LGBT community in general. Gays and lesbians receive for the most part very positive portrayals in the media. You would be hard pressed in the general population to find someone who hasn’t known a gay or lesbian person. Yet we are the captive audience of a seemingly endless drama. The actors on stage are late in their careers, stumbling across their lines, and losing their sense of timing. The play’s denouement is prolonged and the audience is losing interest. All we can do is watch helplessly as we know the only way this is going to end is if the actors finally exit stage left or simply keel over from exhaustion.
We’re forced to accept the guilt foisted upon us by these thoughts and the fact they arise from a sense of self-interest. We want our rights and we are the generation of instant gratification. We want to avoid our own cowardice when it comes to bringing our same-sex partners home to visit family and only the absence of a certain individual or individuals can give us that peace of mind. This is oftentimes how this drama unfolds at a personal or familial level. We are less emotionally connected, and likely for the better, to regressive politicians whose interest is power and preservation of an older order. We are less likely to mourn them and may, in fact, celebrate their demise as some celebrated Falwell’s without the same guilt as if we thought the same thing about a grandparent.
It is perhaps for the best that we maintain this sense of emotional honesty.
“Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on,” remarked the late psychologist Alice Miller, author of “The Drama of the Gifted Child.”
We really have no choice but to except these feelings as they surface. They are the unfortunate by-products of external repression and sexual guilt and shame. The connection of male homosexuality to pedophilia, the stigmatization of AIDS, the demonization of effeminate males (even within our own community, I might add) have, aside from AIDS, been with us for millennia now. The charges are often false or the statistical incidence is no different among heterosexuals. Yet these memes persist through our religious and political institutions and bought wholesale by an impressionable public.
A little delight at the deaths of their promulgators is probably to be expected. Dark humor gives us an ability to communicate our darkest thoughts in a more palatable manner but sometimes it may be worth our while to clear our minds by acknowledging the stark basis of the jokes. When it comes to our family members it may be wrong to say we delight in their deaths the same way but we should acknowledge that there will be an uncomfortable mixture of personal satisfaction and mourning in the months and years following their passing.