by Eric Marcus | OUT Magazine | June 2001
I've written five books on gay issues, discussed them on Oprah and on another 200 television and radio talk shows in the past dozen years, and answered countless letters and E-mails from people seeking advice. So it was particularly shocking to discover that my 10-year-old nephew, Ryan, believed that gay people were something awful. I thought I'd been open and honest, but clearly the message hadn't gotten through.
This is what happened: Last year, when I was working on a new gay Q&A book for kids and teens, I asked Rachel, my sister's 12-year-old, if she had any questions she thought I should include in the book. Inspired by our conversation, Rachel decided to ask her cousin Ryan, my brother's kid, if he knew that his Uncle Barney-my significant other-was gay. He told her he didn't know.
That night Ryan asked his dad, "Is Uncle Barney gay?" My brother, who was surprised by the question because Ryan has known us as a couple since he was a toddler, answered yes. Next question: "Well, if Uncle Barney is gay, what does that mean about Uncle Eric?" My brother's answer: "Well, he's gay, too." Ryan, with a puzzled look on his face, asked, "How can they be gay? I thought 'gay' was something nasty."
I was shocked because I thought my family and I had done everything right. At age 5, Ryan asked his parents why his uncles slept in the same bed. He got the age-appropriate answer: "Because they love each other." A year later, in advance of our commitment ceremony and following my advice, my brother and sister-in-law explained: "Uncle Eric and Uncle Barney love each other just like Mommy and Daddy love each other. And they're having a ceremony like Mommy and Daddy's wedding."
I figured we'd start getting more questions from Ryan when he turned 11 or 12. But two things hadn't occurred to me. One, that because no one ever applied the word "gay" to me or Barney, Ryan would fail on his own to make that connection. And two, that in the absence of being taught anything positive about gay people at home or in school, he was learning to hate us without even knowing it.
If you think it's not happening, just ask any 10-year-old what you say to someone who is doing something stupid. They'll tell you: "Don't be so gay." It's the all-purpose put-down for people or things that are dumb, uncool, bad. Not that kids necessarily understand the connection between the put-down and homosexual people-obviously, Ryan didn't. They just know that "gay" is something terrible, something you want to avoid being or doing at all costs. It was the same way with the word "faggot" when I was growing up.
I asked my brother if he'd ever heard kids in the neighborhood say, "Don't be so gay." He had. At dinner with his neighbors just days earlier, the neighbors' 6-year-old said to her older brother, who was doing something she didn't like, "Don't be so gay." No one at the table knew what to say, so they said nothing.
The problem is that most people say nothing or, as in my case, not enough. It doesn't have to be like this. For example, at my niece's private school, all seventh graders get an introduction to gay people and gay civil rights-thanks to the efforts of a young civics teacher whose father, not incidentally, is gay. They also have guest speakers from the high school's gay-straight alliance. And this year, for the second time, I was invited to address the entire seventh grade. The kids wind up informed and, I hope, relatively free of hate-for others and themselves.
What they do at my niece's school should be done at every school, public and private. But I'm realistic; abstinence education is more and more the order of the day when it comes to learning about sexuality. And with a conservative Republican administration and House in power-not to mention the 54% of school board members who identified themselves as religious conservatives as of 1996-we can forget about a nationwide program that gives kids straight answers about heterosexual sexuality, let alone anything else.
But we can still do a lot. We can support teachers who want to do the right thing, donate money and time to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, vote for school board candidates who believe students deserve to be fully informed, and talk to our friends and family about what their kids need to know. And when we have the opportunity, we can talk to the kids in our lives in an age-appropriate and honest way that lets them know what it means to be gay and makes it clear that gay is okay.
The first time I saw Ryan after his discovery that his uncles were something "nasty," I was a little anxious about how things would go. Ryan had always been affectionate and physically easy with me and I worried that he'd now be uncomfortable. And maybe it was that anxiety-that fear of being rejected-that kept me from being more open and honest with him in the first place.
I decided in advance to take the lead with Ryan and act as if nothing had changed. And after what felt like a moment's hesitation on Ryan's part, it really was no different. By that evening, Ryan was sprawled across my lap as I read to him from his favorite book. I was enormously relieved to see that what Ryan feels for his uncle has won out-for now, and I hope, forever.
by Eric Marcus | USA Today |
14 July 2000
Several years ago, one of the religious right organizations produced and distributed a film called "The Gay Agenda." The 20-minute video featured lurid scenes from a San Francisco gay pride march and interviews with doctors who had less than enlightened views about gay men and women.
I can't say I remember much from that video other than the image of a leather-clad, bare-chested, sweaty man licking the front tire of his motorcycle. But that image is enough to remind me how enraged I was at the time by the crude attempt to tap into the basest fears many people have about those of us who are gay.
"The Gay Agenda" was intended to scare Americans into believing that if they didn't do something - and do it fast - these outrageous, devil-worshipping, motorcycle-licking hedonists would be moving in next door, invading their children's classrooms and dismantling the very foundation on which our society was built.
Well, that hasn't happened. What happened instead, as evidenced by the video images coming out of Vermont these past couple of weeks, is that the two lesbians who already live next door and have done so without creating a fuss for the past 2 1/2 decades decided to get married. Because they live in Vermont, they went to a justice of the peace and legally tied the knot by getting a "civil union." And as far as I can tell, the ground beneath our feet hasn't yet given way.
Yes, gay people want to get married. This shouldn't shock anyone any more than the fact that some gay people behave outrageously—just as some heterosexual people behave outrageously (have you ever been to a football game?) As most of us have been saying for a long time, we gay folks are human beings with the same feelings, desires, weaknesses and strengths as everyone else.
When my significant other and I decided to have a commitment ceremony four years ago, our goal wasn't to undermine society, to destroy the American family or to recruit children into sinful behavior. Our goals were much the same as any two people in our society who love each other and plan to spend their lives together. We wanted to share our happiness with friends and family and to state publicly our commitment to one another, and we wanted our loved ones to know that we considered each other partners for life. Not incidentally, they have treated us this way ever since. To them, we are a couple like any other married couple, with one big exception: Our relationship isn't legal. We live in New York, where we don't have the option of doing anything about that.
Vermont has taken a monumental step in the right direction by giving gay and lesbian couples the rights and privileges they need to care for one another and their families. But Vermont's civil unions, which are not yet recognized outside the state of Vermont or by the federal government, are just the beginning. Gay men and lesbians won't be satisfied with anything less than the same legal rights that non-gay married people take for granted in every state in the union.
So if you're already tired of hearing about gay marriage, brace yourselves. When the day finally comes—and I'm confident it will—that gay and lesbian Americans have the same rights and privileges as everyone else, including the right to legally marry, you won't hear much from us anymore. We'll go about our business and live as conventionally or outrageously as the average Joe and Jane. And as disappointing as it may be to those who claim that gay men and women are up to no good, given the choice, most of us will opt for legal marriage over tire-licking any day.
by Mariette Hartley and Eric Marcus | USA Weekend Magazine | June 1996
An actress and an author discuss how it took their fathers. More lives are lost to suicide than to murder. Consider this: Every 15 minutes, another American commits suicide, now one of the leading causes of death in the nation, surpassing murder. Despite its prevalence - and the fact it can often be prevented, experts say - the subject of suicide remains in the closet. Writer Eric Marcus and actress Mariette Hartley want to change that. Marcus was 12 when his father, a postal clerk, committed suicide by taking and overdose of medication. Now 37, Marcus has written Why Suicide? Answers to 200 of the Most Frequently Asked Questions About Suicide, Attempted Suicide and Assisted Suicide. Hartley, 55, who found her father, a retired ad executive, after he shot himself at age 67, authored a book about her experience, Breaking the Silence.
The two suicide "survivors" recently met for the first time in Hartley's Los Angeles home to discuss their shared tragedies.
Excerpts from their interview:
TWO FATHERS' SUICIDES
Eric Marcus: My parents separated two years before my father died, and he went to live in a boarding house. My brother and I would spend every Saturday with him. Those were the happiest two years of my life. His behavior was erratic. I learned later that he suffered from depression and was also schizophrenic. But he was still my dad; he was still someone I loved. When he died, nobody said it was suicide. The official word was that he died of pneumonia. It was just the most ridiculous charade. This man was so strong, so vital. I had played football with him the week before.
Mariette Hartley: I was 23, on the verge of a major success [as an actress] when this happened. This was his first and only attempt. My parents had moved out to California to help me after my divorce from my first husband. We watched a slow deterioration. He was catatonic. He would sit in a corner for months and not talk - I'd beg him to get help. That morning he called me into his room to look for his glasses. They were clearly hidden under the bedclothes. I think he was trying to reach out for help, but he never said anything. [She returned to the kitchen to finish breakfast with her mother, then heard the gunshot.] I was told not to talk about this with anybody. My mother was full of shame, and didn't want my father to be known only for that.
Marcus: I was a very good child at the funeral. Didn't cry. Everyone said, "You're a grownup now; you have to take care of your mother." Inside, I wanted to scream at everyone and say, "You did this to him." I was all alone in the world. I had no one to talk to. To this day our family doesn't want to talk about it.
Hartley: The most dangerous time for survivors is those first few months after the death, because we are suicidal. This is what nobody wants to talk about. I was so suicidal after my father died. You want to join them. It's a lot less painful. Survivors are terrified of those feelings.
FEARS: REAL AND IMAGINED
Marcus: I worry sometimes, when I'm feeling frustrated about work or life, that I'll end up going down the same path my father did. Ten years after the suicide, I went to therapy. My inclination was to downplay what happened. But it doesn't help to deny the trauma of a suicide.
Hartley: (who says she had suicidal thoughts and began drinking; she has since quit): After my dad died, I was living in a chaotic state. I would hear gunshots whenever I turned my head to the right. I don't know how I got through it. My therapist helped. My children [she has two children from her second marriage] and my ex-husband helped me enormously.
GRIEF AND RECOVERY
Hartley: Suicide has a built-in core of stigma, blame, shame, what if, if only, why, I should have known. There are no other deaths like that.
Marcus: The worst thing you can do is not talk about it. Research shows that survivors are eight times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. The best thing you can do to hasten the healing is to drag yourself, and your children, to a suicide survivor support group.
WHAT TO SAY
Marcus: People ask me what to say to someone whose loved one has committed suicide. Whatever you do, if you write a note, or call, just don't ignore them. I felt so ignored after my father died. Don't walk away. Because what they need most is you.
Officially, more than 30,000 people a year commit suicide. But the actual number may be three to five times higher. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students after accidents. The suicide rate among those 65 and older rose 9 percent between 1980 and 1992, after a 40-year decline. The suicide rate for children ages 10-14 has more than doubled over the past 10 years. Three-quarters of suicides are committed by white males.
by Eric Marcus | Newsweek | 4 July 1993
IGNORANCE IS NOT BLISS by Eric Marcus | Newsweek | 15 July 1993 Sam Nunn didn't need to hold Senate hearings to come up with his 'don't ask, don't tell" solution for handling gays in the military. If he'd asked me, I could have told him this was exactly the policy some of my relatives suggested years ago when I informed them that I planned to tell my grandmother that I was gay. They said, "She's old, it'll kill her. You'll destroy her image of you. If she doesn't ask, why tell?"
Don't ask, don't tell" made a lot of sense to these relatives because it sounded like an easy solution. For them, it was. If I didn't say anything to my grandmother, they wouldn't have to deal with her upset over the truth about her grandson. But for me, "not telling" was an exhausting nightmare, because it meant withholding everything that could possibly give me away and living in fear of being found out. At the same time, I didn't want to cause Grandma pain by telling her I was gay, so I was easily persuaded to continue the charade.
If I hadn't been close to my grandmother, or saw her once a year, hiding the truth would have been relatively easy. But we'd had a special relationship since she cared for me as a child when my mother was ill, and we visited often, so lying to her was especially difficult.
I started hiding the truth from everyone in 1965, when I had my first crush. That was in second grade and his name was Hugh. No one told me, but I knew I shouldn't tell anyone about it, not even Hugh. I don't know how I knew that liking another boy was something to hide, but I did, so I kept it a secret.
I fell in love for the first time when I was 17. It was a wondrous experience, but I didn't dare tell anyone, especially my family, because telling them about Bob would have given me away. I couldn't explain to them that for the first time in my life I felt like a normal human being.
By the time I was an adult, I'd stopped lying to my immediate family, with the exception of my grandmother, and told them that I was gay. I was a second-rate liar so I was lucky that Grandma was the only person in my life around whom I had to be something I wasn't. I can't imagine what it's like for gays and lesbians in the military to hide the truth from the men and women with whom they serve. The fear of exposure must be extraordinary, especially because exposure would mean the end of their careers. For me, the only risk was losing Grandma's love.
Hiding the truth from her grew ever more challenging in the years that followed. I couldn't tell her about the man I then shared my life with. I couldn't talk about my friends who had AIDS because she would have wondered why I knew so many ill men. I couldn't tell her that I volunteered for a gay peer-counseling center. I couldn't talk to her about the political issues that most interested me because she would have wondered why I had such passionate feelings about gay rights. Eventually I couldn't even tell her about all of my work, because some of my writing was on gay issues. In the end, all we had left to talk about was the weather. If being gay were only what I did behind closed doors, there would have been plenty of my life left over to share with my grandmother.
But my life as a gay man isn't something that takes place only in the privacy of my bedroom. It affects who my friends are, whom I choose to share my life with, the work I do, the organizations I belong to, the magazines I read, where I vacation and what I talk about. I know it's the same for heterosexuals because their sexual orientation affects everything, from a choice of senior-prom date and the finger on which they wear their wedding band to the birth announcements they send and every emotion they feel.
So the reality of the "don't ask, don't tell" solution for dealing with my grandmother and for dealing with gays in the military means having to lie about or hide almost every aspect of your life. It's not nearly as simple as just not saying, "I'm gay."
After years of "protecting" my grandmother I decided it was time to stop lying. In the worst case, I figured she might reject me, although that seemed unlikely. But whatever the outcome, I could not pretend anymore. Some might think that was selfish on my part, but I'd had enough of the "don't tell" policy, which had forced me into a life of deceit. I also hoped that by telling her the truth, we could build a relationship based on honesty, a possibility that was worth the risk.
The actual telling was far less terrifying than all the anticipation. While my grandmother cried plenty, my family was wrong, because the truth didn't kill her. In the five years since, Grandma and I have talked a lot about the realities of my life and the lives of my gay and lesbian friends. She's read many articles and a few books, including mine. She's surprised us by how quickly she's set aside her myths and misconceptions.
Grandma and I are far closer than we ever were. Last fall we even spent a week together in Paris for her birthday. And these days, we have plenty to talk about, including the gays in the military issue. A few months ago, Grandma traveled with me to Lafayette College, Pa., where I was invited to give a speech on the history of the gay civil-rights movement. After my talk, several students took us to dinner. As I conversed with the young women across the table from me, I overheard my grandmother talking to the student sitting next to her. She told him he was right to tell his parents he was gay, that with time and his help they would adjust. She said, "Don't underestimate their ability to change."
I wish Sam Nunn had called my grandmother to testify before his Senate committee. He and the other senators, as well as Defense Secretary Les Aspin and the president, could do far worse than listen to her advice.
by Anna Quindlen | The New York Times | 27 May 1992
It was 20 years ago next month that an elementary-school teacher named Jeanne Manford made history. She walked down a street in New York City carrying the sort of poster paper her students sometimes used for projects, except that printed on it were these words: PARENTS of Gays UNITE in SUPPORT for our CHILDREN. At her side during the Gay Pride march was her son, Morty, her golden boy, the one a teacher once told her would be a senator someday. When he was in high school he said he wanted to see a psychologist, and the psychologist called the Manfords in and told them that the golden boy was gay. But it never changed his mother's mind about his glow.
Morty's story, and his mother's, too, are contained in a new oral history of the gay rights struggle, Making History, by Eric Marcus. The cheering thing about the book is how far we have come since the days when newspaper editors felt free to use "homo" in headlines.
The distressing thing is how far we have to go, not in the world alone, where homophobia remains one of the last acceptable bigotries, but in our homes, where children learn that the world is composed exclusively of love and sex between men and women. Even when Mom and Dad have gay friends and raised consciousness, there is too often silence that surrounds other ways of life and love. And silence begets distance. Distance between parent and child is one of the saddest things in Making History: the parents who try to commit their gay children to mental hospitals, the ones who erect a gravestone and send an obituary to the paper when they discover their daughter is a lesbian, or simply the ones who were told nothing because their children considered the truth untellable.
Greg Brock, a newspaperman, describes how he came out to his parents the day before he was to appear on Oprah's show. Thirty-five years old and the man had never spoken to his mother and father of his central reality. "I was about to destroy my dad's life," he recalled.
Is this really what we want, to obsess about ear infections and reading readiness and then discover many years too late that we were either unaware or unaccepting of who our children were? To keen "What will to tell my friends?" when our kids try to talk about their lives?
In the same borough in which Morty Manford grew up and his mother taught, a Queens school board has rejected a curriculum that encourages respect for all families, including those headed by gay and lesbian parents. Consider that decision, not in terms of gay rights, but in terms of the children.
Given the statistical estimates, the board is telling 1 out of 10 kids that the life they will eventually lead is not part of the human program. Among their students are surely boys and girls who will discover they are gay and who, from their earliest years, will have learned that there is something wrong with that, and therefore with them. Learned it from classmates, from teachers. Worst of all, from their own mothers and fathers.
Actually, it's probably the mothers and fathers who need that curriculum most. All parents should be aware that when they mock or curse gay people, they may be mocking or cursing their own child.
All parents should know that when they consider this subject unspeakable, they may be forever alienating their own child and causing them all enormous pain. Paulette Goodman, president of the Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, likens it to her experience as a Jew in occupied Paris. "I know what it's like to be in the closet," she recalled. "I know all too well."
Jeanne Manford didn't want a closet. Her Morty was the same golden boy after she found out he was gay as he was before. She was with him at the Gay Pride march and with him in the gay rights movement.
And she was with him when he died a little more than a week ago of AIDS, almost 20 years to the day after she wrote her unconditional love on poster paper for all the world to see. She does not reproach herself. She loved and accepted her child the way he was. In a perfect world, this would be the definition of "parent" in the dictionary. The point is not what you tell your friends at the bridge table. It is what you'll tell yourself at the end.