(This story was published in 2003).
By: Nat Brown
I spent the summer at my ranch in British Columbia. It was unbelievably hot and dry, and fires burned all around us, with a really big one just to the north in Kelowna. The rivers were running dry, and all the high lakes around us were empty. The woods and fields were like tinder, just waiting for someone to drop a cigarette or throw a spark with a chainsaw. The ranch seems to have survived – but two sparks got dropped into my tinder, one of which has been on a slow burn ever since, and the other of which has burst into what may be a fairly serious fire – or perhaps not.
The personal slow burn got started in July, when the athletes I coached for the last few winters stopped in for a visit.
I ought to explain that after 30-plus years of coaching cross-country skiing, I have finally decided to retire. It has been a good career, ranging from 16 years of high-school coaching up through seven World Junior Championships, seven World Championships, and three Olympics. I have coached several medals, and I have enjoyed good, strong friendships with many of the athletes I have worked with, many of whom remain good friends years later – including two medallists. And I have been out for almost the whole time (I started outing myself in the late 70’s).
There has never been a problem, until this summer.
The two athletes I coached for the last three winter, Andrew and Iain, have both been accepted into colleges with good ski programs. Iain is at APU in Anchorage, and Andrew is at Colby. Both stopped in this summer for a visit, Iain with his parents, on their way to Anchorage via the Alaska highway with a very full Subaru, and Andrew, with a younger friend, a beginning skier with a lot of talent, named “Mike.”
Several days after Andrew and Mike arrived, I got a call from Mike’s father, “Jack.” Jack asked if he could visit us, and I said of course. I’ve always welcomed parents at our camps, and parents have often been my biggest supporters; as my teaching mentor Bob Spock used to say, “Parents are your best allies.” In due course, Jack arrived. After a few minutes of chat, he excused himself and took Mike for a walk. When they came back, the boys went to bed, and we had The Talk.
Jack had never called to check on any details during the time Mike was planning to come visit. But after Mike came up with Andrew, Jack found out I was gay. He immediately did a Google search on my name, and came up with Outsports. He called Andrew’s family to check me out, and they gave me their highest rating. Some parents have told me that I have been one of the best influences their children have had in life, and Iain’s mother, a lawyer, even volunteered to set up all the legal work that my partner and I needed – living wills, durable power of attorney, etc. And of course, I’ve been out all the for many years. Never a problem.
The Talk started with Jack telling me how much calling around he’d done, and how after talking to Mike, he realized that I kept to “professional standards.” And that’s where the slow burn started. He also said that he felt guilty he’d never called me while Mike was making plans to come up to the ranch, and said, “I’m sure you’d have told me you were gay if we’d talked.” More burn.
I’m not sure I would have told him. In fact, I’m damn sure I wouldn’t have. When I agree to coach an athlete on the long-term, I do like to be sure parents know; I don’t want them learning it from some negative source. But I do not feel any need, or that it’s anybody’s business to expect me to call them up and tell them, just because their son is coming to visit me with a friend, that I’m gay. I wish I’d said something, but I was more stunned with the issue of “professional standards.”
I did not somehow manage to keep my hands off Jack’s son because of some Professional Code of Conduct. I kept my hands off him because I don’t want to have sex with 15 year-olds. Because I believe in commitment and fidelity. Because I believe in things like integrity, dignity, and decency. NOT because of some intrusive big-brother code.
I should have asked Jack (now in his fifth relationship, I might add … “Dad’s first Asian girlfriend,” as I was told) whether he would have sent his daughter up with a friend to visit the friend’s heterosexual male coach. Or whether he kept his hands off 15 year-old girls because of some Code of Conduct. But it was late, and I didn’t, and I’ve been getting angrier and angrier since. Slow burn.
The “serious fire” has been the whole backlash against gay marriage. It started in England, where Jeffrey John was pressured to step down as Suffragan Bishop of Reading in the Oxford Diocese. It progressed through the election of Gene Robinson, a gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire, and ended, after a reactionary attempt to smear Robinson, with the Episcopal church in a stand-off about both Robinson and blessing gay marriages. And there was the stopover at the Pope’s orders to Catholic politicians to resist not only gay marriages, but even gay civil unions. Not to mention the hysterical ravings of folks who want somehow to save marriage by denying a sizeable minority the right to enter into it.
The two burns are connected, which is why I bring them both up here. Both are based – religion aside – on the assumption that gay people do not deserve full rights, citizenship, or trust. They rest on the impression that gay people are wildly promiscuous (it is well known that heterosexuals are never promiscuous), wildly wild, and interested in nothing but entertainment, fashion, and sex. In short, we don’t have real lives – we have lifestyles.
Later in the summer, I had a weekend visit from two friends who happen to be gay. I have been sweating over a sermon I have been asked to preach at my church to mark our annual remembrance of Matthew Shepard and Coming Out Day (Trinity Episcopal, Seattle, Oct. 12). Both urged me not to be reticent, but to be personal, to make the congregation not only agree with what I have to say, but to try to make them feel it.
And that brings me back to my point here. Even after a lifetime of coaching, I found someone who didn’t trust me, because I am gay. Or rather, who immediately was suspicious because I am gay. I don’t know if The Talk did any good. I wasn’t at my best. But I do know that I have to keep coming out. And I do know that several hundred kids, and their parents, feel different about gay people because they now know one, and know that the asinine stereotypes and the bigoted hysteria are simply not true: by golly, gay people are just like you and me! They are our neighbors, teachers, coaches, our friends!
We need to come out. Our enemies grow more and more shrill, but I believe it is because they are losing, and they know it. The toothpaste will not go back in the tube. Women won’t lose voting rights, slavery isn’t going to be reinstated, and we aren’t going back into the closet, although that would make some so much more comfortable. We have won. We’ve made our D-day landing. There is a lot of mopping up to do still, and the enemy can still inflict damage on our rights and try to call into question integrity and our dignity. But it’s worth remembering something Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
There are a lot of fights ahead, and it may be grim at times. We need to remember that they didn’t start burning and blowing up black churches in Mississippi until the battle for rights was almost won in the hearts – if not the laws – of America. But the burning churches convinced the rest of America that the reactionaries and bigots were morally bankrupt. It helped that much of the Civil Rights movement was faith- and church-based, which is something I believe we gay people would do well to reflect on. But above all, we gay people need to present America with our faces and with the integrity of our lives. We can do this by coming out, and by refusing to give up our dignity. Coming Out Day is Oct. 11. Use the day well.