High school French class seems like an unlikely vehicle for mocking LGBT people.
But when you’re young, uncertain of your place in the world, and trying to fit in, the vehicle doesn’t matter. What matters is the self-esteem boost.
And for us humans, mocking a stereotype has always been a “buy one get one” sale on self-esteem: elevating yourself feels so much better when you can denigrate someone at the same time.
Thus was born my starring role in a skit performed for hundreds of teens from across Southern Idaho to laughs, applause, and rave reviews. A character I created, refined, and practiced to perfection.
A role that deeply shames me today.
I was a self-made bigot
I have no excuses.
I grew up in a thoroughly conservative, religious community (Mormon), but church had no influence on me because my family didn’t belong to one and never attended. My parents never expressed animosity toward gay people, nor was the topic of same-sex attraction even discussed.
So, I was not taught to mock LGBT people. I developed my attitude from observing the shortcuts other people used to achieve acceptance and popularity. Then I unconsciously conducted my own experiments in pursuit of the same goals.
And when the opportunity arose…there I was, piling on with the unthinking, reflexive bigotry that has been the hallmark of humans since the dawn of time.Cheap laughs at the expense of others: the go-to move in a bully’s repertoire. Click To Tweet
Not everything in life comes down to sex, but when you are talking about human sexuality, sex is the unavoidable starting point.
The relentless search for naked women
Ah, the innocence of a pre-internet childhood. It’s hard to imagine now, but it was quite difficult for a young boy to find pictures of naked women. As is true for most boys, I developed a fascination for this subject.
But there was literally nowhere a young teen could go in Jerome, Idaho (population 7,000 at the time) to get even a glimpse of this forbidden knowledge if he didn’t have connections to adults who, um, collected such artwork.
I had no such connections. The desire was ever-present, though, like a never-ending quest for a holy grail:
During a community-service trash cleanup, joyfully finding a discarded Playboy at the side of the road…only to have it snatched away by an upperclassman.
Poring over books of Renaissance art at the library in search of nudes.
Whittling a stick into a naked woman based on my imagination, even though my little folding pocket knife could barely cut the twine on a hay bale. Plus, I had no talent.
My parents explained the theory of sex to me during a classic “birds and bees” session. After that, I had no other sources of information for years except rumors and innuendo from uninformed peers – and I certainly wasn’t going to ask Mom and Dad any detailed follow-up questions. So, I was uncertain about how sex worked in the real world. All I knew was that my attraction to the opposite sex was a driving force in my young life.
I assumed it was the same for every boy. I wasn’t even remotely aware that attraction to the same sex was a thing until I was about middle-school age.
Hold it…you mean men, you know…with each other?
I recall the exact moment when I learned that not all males had the same sexual desire as me. I was stacking newspapers by the little iron stove we used to heat the back room of our farmhouse, for use in getting the fire going. And there it was on the society page of the Times-News: an announcement with a picture of two guys in tuxedos cutting a cake.
Odd, I thought. But there in black and white was the caption about two men getting married. Well, certainly not legally married back in the Idaho of the mid-70’s, but they announced a commitment.
Even after reading the brief announcement, I still didn’t understand. I had to ask my older brother what it was all about, and that was the first time I ever heard the word “homosexual.”
It was like learning that the earth is round when your personal experience completely aligns with it being flat. My first reaction was disbelief, followed by puzzlement when I tried to imagine how the birds-and-bees talk could possibly apply.
It would be years before I was acquainted with anyone who I knew for certain was gay. But a seed had been planted: There were “others” out there who were outside what I thought was the mainstream.
And being human, I soon turned that knowledge to my own selfish benefit.
The rules for socially-acceptable prejudice
Making fun of others is a shortcut to gaining acceptance to a group. It’s a way to say:
“You and I have something in common: We aren’t weird like that other person. So, you should like me.”
Who’s safe to make fun of? What are the rules for who to choose as a victim? It’s all about where you stand in the social pecking order:
Rule 1: Defer to those above. Avoid them or kiss up, depending on your confidence level.
Rule 2: Use those below as stepping stones to advance to higher levels of the social hierarchy.
“Stepping stones” are there to be ridiculed, as needed, to achieve your social-climbing goals.
I was not a popular student. I had been crushed underfoot as a stepping stone plenty of times, so you’d think I would have developed an aversion to ridiculing others. That, however, is not how humans work. What goes around comes around; do unto me, and I’ll do the same unto others at my first opportunity.
It wasn’t until I attended university that I felt confident enough in my own skin to be able to withstand at least some the pressure to ostracize.
I remember a conversation in college with a slightly mentally disabled student. Another student, standing behind his back listening in, did everything he could non-verbally to get my attention so we could share a moment of unspoken ridicule. I became acutely aware of the role I was supposed to play and felt guilt, even though I studiously ignored the eye-rolls and grimaces.
But that was college. In high school, I was still striving for popularity, and people who were different were fair game. And when it comes to different, LGBT kids were perfect; although I never spent much time thinking about it, I was certain that there weren’t any of them in all of southern Idaho.
“Gay” was a concept only. Like a unicorn, there was no proof of their existence in the real world. After all, I’d never met anyone who’d admitted to it. Ergo: they were the perfect object of ridicule.
Which brings me to my starring role.
My starring role in an anti-gay play
“La Fleur.” The flower. A perfect name for an openly gay soldier reasoned my 16-year-old self.
I came up with the name for the starring character in the French class skit, to be performed at a regional conference for students taking foreign language classes. My group’s idea started off simple: We’d be soldiers marching around following orders. It was perfect: we could barely speak understandable French so one- or two-word military commands would make our Franco-ineptitude less apparent.
There was only one problem: it was boring. There was no hook, no humor. So, I took charge of the script and wrote a starring role for myself.
The plot didn’t change, but there was now comic relief; I made the La Fleur character not just gay, but unmistakably standout and stand-apart different.
- When the commander barked “attention!” La Fleur busied himself adjusting the flower in his hair.
- When the soldiers marched, La Fleur flounced along in his disheveled, unbuttoned uniform.
- The precise, military diction of the other soldiers was emphasized by La Fleur’s French-accented lisping.
Instinctively, I knew to appeal to negative stereotypes to maximize the impact.
My first writing/directing/acting credit was a smash hit. The students and adults in the crowd laughed and clapped, and we won recognition by the judges. I basked in my thespian triumph for the rest of the conference.
And now I wonder: How many in the audience were smiling and laughing to avoid standing out while the essence of their lives was stereotyped and mocked? Given the size of the crowd, there were at least five LGBT students who were forced to ridicule themselves to fit in.
What emotional damage results when a person who is working through their feelings about self-identify is shown in dramatic fashion that their sexuality is hilarious? That it is something to be laughed at?
I’m embarrassed by the role I played in that event. I’m ashamed that it took over a decade for me to recognize that it was wrong. On the remote chance that anyone who attended this event is reading this article, I apologize.The triumphant feeling of mocking a weak target, the utter shame of realizing what you’ve done. Click To Tweet
As you know from my article about patriotism, I was a typical kid. Not a saint, not a monster. Just a teenager trying to find my way.
So, where did La Fleur come from?
The roots of intolerance
Baked into the human psyche is a fear of the “other” as an existential threat to survival because it was true for millennia. Someone from a different tribe was most likely not stopping by to borrow some grubs for a recipe and have a friendly chat. Fear and suspicion of outsiders were a distinct survival benefit.
Considering this, it’s not difficult to understand why we act to exclude differentness from our lives today. But ostracism of others has even deeper roots than instinctive risk avoidance.
The evolved human need to form groups for survival means that anything capable of bonding a group tightly together will be employed by leaders. And one of the most efficient methods for getting humans to stick together is to give them someone on which to project their dissatisfactions. Better to despise a non-group member than to get cranky with your hunting-and-gathering partners.
Anyone who’s different will do nicely for this purpose. Outsiders work, for certain, but insiders who are in no way a physical threat are a handy substitute when no actual enemies threaten.
Find the different characteristic, define it as deviant, and – voila – ready-made group cohesion.
Video: How to create a tribe in 4 easy steps
5 minutes, 47 seconds | subtitles available
It works informally, but it’s even more effective when it’s official policy.
“Fag bags” and sanctioned intolerance
I served in the Army before the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era instituted by President Clinton. The best way to sum up the policy while I was in the service would be “don’t be gay.”
Despite my star turn as La Fleur, I was never a committed homophobe – more like an opportunistic one. If the rules allowed for it, I was all right with mocking. I just soaked up the culture of the organization, and the military was decidedly anti-gay at that time.
In the Army of the late 1980’s, “gay” or “fag” was shorthand for weak and effeminate; a handy way to encapsulate all undesirable, un-manly characteristics into one word.
So, when my soldiers referred to my officer’s map case as a “fag bag” I didn’t think twice; it was an enlisted man’s way of not-so-subtly making fun of officers by using an accepted slur. It would have been bad form to get bent out of shape about it, so I didn’t.
Most people are not rabidly anything, neither completely for nor totally against. Prejudice, for many, starts out as the easiest way to get along with your peer group. The Army was a huge peer group, and the law reinforced its anti-gay norms. For a brand-new lieutenant in an Infantry outfit, there was no way in hell I would have gone out on a limb to tamp down anti-LGBT statements.
And I did have a chance to do exactly that.
Sergeant Adams1 was one of my standout high-performers when I was a platoon leader at Ft. Riley, Kansas.
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
He was physically strong, technically proficient, and very self-confident – an all-around great squad leader. Like me, he had graduated from both Airborne and Ranger schools, which was not common in a mechanized infantry outfit. Every soldier looked up to him, until…
One rowdy night after a few drinks, Sergeant Adams crossed some blurred line between typical male roughhousing and a display of affection. I wasn’t there so I can’t say what happened, but from that point forward, he carried a stain of suspect sexuality in the eyes of the enlisted men.
They still followed him, still obeyed his orders when on duty. But off duty in the barracks, when strict discipline gave way to informality, he was casually referred to as gay, fag, homo, and – possibly the worst for him – a pink ranger. It was kidding around, guy style, but with a sharp edge. And his protests only served to encourage more of the same.
I heard. I knew it was happening, and I knew it was hurting morale, but I did nothing. It’s a tricky thing to navigate the officer/enlisted relationship, and any verbal response from me would have made his situation infinitely worse. A more experienced officer could have rebuilt Sergeant Adams’s esteem among the men by demonstrating trust and reliance through actions, but as a young lieutenant I wasn’t sure how to go about it.
So, I did nothing. The situation remained tense and unresolved when I moved on to a different unit.
But it had an impact on me, the unfairness of it all and the illogic. Sergeant Adams – who may or may not have been gay – performed his mission flawlessly. Why should anyone care that he may – or may not! – have a different sexual orientation from the rest of the soldiers? Volunteering to serve his country wasn’t enough?
The beginning of my enlightenment was meeting my future wife in college. Betsy has gay relatives3 and it was my first knowing acquaintance with someone who wasn’t heterosexual. They were (and are) good friends and – unshockingly – regular people.
Actually knowing someone who was gay made a difference in my attitude. I moved from being nominally anti-gay due to my background and lack of knowledge, to being neutral: I would never have diminished my gay relatives, but I didn’t think I had any responsibility to stand up for recognition of different sexual orientations.
Sergeant Adams changed that. Not at first, but over time, the more I thought about it. And there was a lot to think about.
What if Sergeant Adams had not been an outstanding soldier? What if he’d just been capable, but not a standout? Or even a poor soldier? Undoubtedly, in that case, any hint of different sexuality would have been savagely employed to cull him from the herd completely. He was only given a pass – barely – because he was such an over-performer.
It’s a situation faced by many people who don’t possess the three characteristics that confer automatic benefit-of-the-doubt status. Being:
If you are lacking in any of these areas, then you must earn your right to have your differentness begrudgingly accepted by overcompensating in everything else.
It’s a case of the “buts”:
“He’s gay but a really great father.”
“She’s kind of a bitch but always the top salesperson.”
“She’s African-American but so beautiful and super helpful.”
And if you are just an average, flawed human like all the rest of us, but also female, of color, or non-straight? Well, then you have the right to remain silent, and anything you say may be used against you in the court of public opinion. If you dare to stand out, we’ll slap the “feel free to humiliate” label on you so fast your head will spin.
My entire life, I had been a safe member of the mainstream group; not particularly committed to the conservative mindset I’d grown up with, just feeling lucky to be in here and not out there, alone and vulnerable.
But, after I left the military and made my way in the civilian world, safety in the group no longer felt right. I didn’t want to be in the middle of the herd anymore, so I began to separate myself and appreciate and support differentness.
The issue for me was no longer confined to LGBT rights, but to any of my fellow travelers who also found themselves outside the mainstream.
I didn’t do anything crazy (crazy is not in the Weigle genes), so I certainly didn’t advocate for anyone who was different.
I just watched. And went back to school, sort of.
My wife, Betsy, is a no-kidding, unbelievably talented elementary school teacher. Her students over the years have adored her, even when she has stretched their brains more than they thought possible.
Her kids’ pass rate on those much-maligned standardized tests – both reading and math – have been consistently over 90%. This is nearly unheard of in the poverty-stricken schools where she teaches. What’s more, this includes all kids: special education, special needs, gifted…it never mattered; they all became knowledge sponges in Mrs. Weigle’s room. Whatever you think of these tests, they are rigorous and difficult to pass.
She has many techniques for accomplishing this feat, but the core of what she does is create an extremely tight-knit classroom community…an elementary school tribe, if you will. Within a few weeks of the start of school, her kids have fully invested in the community and are willing to do anything to stay safe within its protective surroundings.
Even if that means working three times as hard in school as any other students.
And what is the price of admission into this tribe of learning? Complete and total acceptance of everyone in the class, with no exceptions, based on the example set by the teacher.
You can be:
- rich or poor
- any race
- non-English speaking
- underweight or overweight
- shy or popular
It doesn’t matter. Within minutes of the first bell on the first day of the year, every child will start to feel a wave of unconditional acceptance wash over them. It will pull them in, making it easy for them to extend the same feeling to the kids sitting next to them.
I watched this happen year after year and learned from her example.
You see, a group can form strong bonds without an outside enemy, without an “other” to ridicule and despise to make themselves feel superior. If a group’s binding force is hatred, animosity, and suspicion, it’s weak glue because the most powerful emotions are directed outward.
But if the binding force is mutual acceptance and respect, none of that emotion is wasted outside the group.
However, someone must set the example.
The base instinct of children is to form groups by excluding certain others. Kids are just small adults, and elementary schools are filled with potential outsiders, scapegoats just ready to be picked on. But mixed in with those base instincts are also love and a desire to be loved. What manifests depends on leadership.
Betsy was like a seed crystal in a super-saturated solution of back-to-school emotions. She provided the example of how to act toward others, and love and acceptance almost instantly formed into an unbreakable structure.
Being a seed crystal is hard. It’s much easier just to wait to see which way the group is moving and move with it, even if it means leaving someone out. Even if it means ridiculing an LGBT person for no other reason than popularity demands it.
Equal humanity for all humans
Can people be happy without enemies? Can we hold ourselves in high esteem without holding others low? Must LGBT people forever exist on the edge of judgment?
More importantly: can we learn to actively demonstrate acceptance for others to model?
Some can. After many years, I finally learned how. Transitions sometimes take decades, but mine is complete. It’s challenging to move from suspicion and mockery to acceptance. It’s harder still to go from acceptance to advocacy – to take a public position, no matter the consequences.
So, to the world at large – and to my adolescent self – I offer my credo:
Every individual has the right to define themselves, to exist as they are without being labeled or ridiculed. Sexuality is the most personal of all expressions and therefore requires the utmost respect.
I don’t care what your community says, what your religion dictates, what your family tries to enforce. We don’t have to love everyone, or even like them. But our humanity calls for respectful acceptance, not exclusion.
All people should have the right to be an other…without being branded an outsider.
Until next time…remember the OverExamined Life motto: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.