There was a quote from some political pundit a few years ago that talked about the price of being president. I am paraphrasing here but the point was basically that we, as Americans, elect a President who becomes the most powerful man in the world. The price we charge for that lofty office is that we spend six months doing our best to destroy that person first. I think it is fair to say that the folks that find themselves on the receiving end of political personal attacks willingly put themselves in harm’s way and often fire back with just as much venom as they receive. I don’t like the personal attacks in politics but they are nearly as old as our democracy itself. So with that said, I have no real pity for Mitt Romney and the situation he finds himself in. Likewise, I had no pity for then-candidate Barack Obama when the more unsavory parts of his youth came under scrutiny in 2008.
I also feel compelled to say in my own pre-emptive defense that I while I am a conservative I am not a Romney supporter. As I sit here in May of an election year my decision making seems to mostly revolve around whether I will write in Mickey Mouse or Luke Skywalker on my November ballot. So the purpose of this post is not to defend Romney’s actions, only to share my perspective on the circumstances surrounding what he did. Think of this as a cultural observation, nothing more.
Like Romney I went to an all-male prep school and even though we were some 30 years apart I also went to school in a time when when homosexuality was not widely accepted. The spring of my junior year was 1992 and Ellen Degeneres coming out of the closet on national television was still five years away. HIV was considered by many to be a homosexual disease I think it’s accurate to say that cultural acceptance of gays was very, very low.
For those who haven’t had the experience of single-sex education allow me to paint a brief picture of what an all-male school is like: There were nearly 2,000 boys on campus, all going through puberty and all bursting with testostorone. My school was an athletic powerhouse and so over 50% of the student body played some kind of sport. Even if you didn’t play an organized sport, PE class was extremely competitive and aggressive. Outside of sports even the hallways were filled with constant physical interactions. The favorite activities were shoulder-checking fellow students into lockers or sucker-punching someone in the arm or knocking their books out of their hands from behind. And this is how we interacted with our friends. Beyond the physical stuff there was a lot of verbal chest-thumping. We teased each other with no mercy (as guys seem gentically programed to do). We bragged about scoring with girls. We bragged about our cars. We bragged about anything and everything. The competitiveness also extended to the classroom. We excelled because we made academic success yet another competition for dominance. It created an atmosphere where the stars of the football team were also on the honor roll and getting poor grades was not something to laugh about. To sum up the experience, it was the most competitive time of my life and if I am being completely honest, I loved it. I loved the physicality, the ‘bro culture’ (before the term existed) and I loved the freedom that came with not having to constantly impress female classmates. It was like a four-year stag party with the end result being lifelong friends and a quality education.
The down-side to an all-male school was that we received a lot of ugliness directed at us from public school kids that saw us as privelaged and spoiled. The most popular way to tear into us was to make gay jokes and invent wild stories about what went on behind closed doors. In public we accepted it with a laugh and promised to punish them for it on the football field. In private though we all feared there might be an enemy within our ranks. Homophobia was a very real thing and it was amplified tenfold by the all-male atmosphere. In the locker rooms any perceived below-the-waist eye contact could get you shamed for weeks. Someone accused a classmate of mine of getting an erection in the shower during our freshman year and he was still occassionally teased about it three years later. At that time we were self-policing because if someone really was gay then we probably thought it would reflect on all of us and that was unthinkable to our adolescent brains.
It was in this atmosphere that a student I will call ‘Tom’ was forced because he grew up Catholic or his parents simply wanted him to go to a good school. Tom was also gay. He wasn’t open about it but all of the stereotypical signs were there. The lisp, the mannerisms, etc. Everyone suspected but because he had no friends, no one could confirm it. Tom was also really good at flying under the radar until his senior year. Inexplicably, Tom came to school one day with his bangs dyed purple. Within an hour word about it had swept through the school. This action would be hopelessly tame today but in 1992 this was front-page news within the school. A couple of hours later I was in the cafeteria and Tom was going through the lunch line while everyone around him maintained their distance. Then he went to his table. At least 16 other guys were already seated. Guys who had ate lunch with him for years. They weren’t his friends but they tolerated his presence and for high schoolers that is a small form of acceptance.
You probabaly see where this is going. When Tom sat down everyone stood up and left. Some people in the cafeteria cheered. The rest of us watched in silence. Within a week Tom was gone. He transferred to the local public school to finish his high school career. A kid I knew from that school told me, “Thanks a lot for sending your fag to us.” I don’t know much of Tom’s story after that year. I heard that he came out of the closet in college. My hope is that he found acceptance and lives a happy life now.
Looking back it would be easy to say that I should have taken my tray and sat next to him in some kind of act of support. But that act would have been suicide. I would have been appauded if I had put my arm around the shoulders of some nerdy kid who was being teased for liking Dungeons and Dragons but in that time and that place, homosexuality was simply an unforgivable sin. I remember being sad to see the incident and my classmates’ behavior, but also angry that Tom chose to do what he did. While I was never a bully the concept of homosexuality was so alien to me that it felt like Tom had brought his fate on himself. To this day I wish I knew why he chose an act that would certainly be met with such hostility. He didn’t seem to have an agenda. He didn’t have a speech prepared. He waited several years afterwards to come out of the closet publically. Maybe he was testing the waters for acceptance but if he thought it was possible he completely misread the atmosphere in that school. It still remains one of the most perplexing things I witnessed in my youth.
I don’t know if there is a difference between the actions of my classmates in 1992 and the way Romney behaved in the incident we are all now discussing. What I saw then seems more passive that the Romney incident (although not really any less wrong). I am probably not the best person to judge. What I do understand is the atmosphere in which Romney was going to school and I remember how easily influenced some kids were to act in ways like he did. It doesn’t make anything okay, it just means being a kid is really hard sometimes. I think it’s important to keep that in mind when judging the story. That’s just my observation. Nothing more.