No excuses for West: I have no sympathy for ousted Spokane mayor Jim West or other hypocritical closet cases. They didn't miss out on these years of greater gay visibility. They opted out.
It was 1981, and I was three months shy of my 18th birthday. Unlike most of the other boys in the vapid crowd of just-out teenagers I was running with, I knew a little gay history and I could add and subtract.
When those older men in the bars were 18, it was 1961 or 1951--and it might as well have been 1661 for all the difference it made. When they were our age it just wasn't possible to be an openly gay teenager. We were talking pre-Stonewall! The dark ages! There weren't gay youth groups or gay bookstores or gay neighborhoods. No PFLAG, no NGLTF, no FFA. "Give 'em a break," I used to tell my friends. "They missed out."
When I got to know some of these older guys I was shocked--shocked!--to discover that not all of them lusted after me and my young friends. Some of them lusted after other middle-aged guys; others had boyfriends at home.
But many, as I suspected, had "missed out." Many had had wives, children, and established careers long before the Stonewall riots.
Consequently, their coming-out processes had been--what's the word?--messy. And while a few of the men I met came out willingly, most told me stories about getting caught or discovered. The term hadn't been invented yet, but they had been outed. Inevitably their stories ended with their wives divorced, their children estranged, their careers over.
They had known they were gay when they married, but when they were young they didn't think they had any other options--they had to pass; they had to marry; they had to have families. Their formative years were truly tragic, and hearing their stories made me feel even sorrier for them.
Jim West, the disgraced former mayor of Spokane, Wash., had a messy coming-out process in 2005--to put it mildly. A Republican elected official in Washington State for more than 20 years, West was once Washington's most prominent and powerful homophobe. During his two decades in the state legislature West backed a bill that would have made it illegal for gay men and lesbians to work in schools, day care centers, and some state agencies; he voted to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman; he attempted to outlaw sex between consenting teenagers; he killed a bill that would have protected gays and lesbians from discrimination.
Shortly after he was elected mayor of Spokane, West threatened to veto domestic-partner benefits for city employees.
When Spokane's daily newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, heard that West was trawling the Internet for gay teenagers, the paper began trawling the Internet for West. And it didn't take long to find him in a Gay.com chat room, where he offered a city internship to someone he thought was an 18-year-old boy and a possible sex partner. (Now we know why West wanted to ban sex between consenting teenagers: He wanted the teenage boys for himself.) In May the paper published a long story on West's secret life, and on December 6 voters turned West out of office in a special recall election.
As chance would have it, I was in Spokane the day after Jim West was forced from office. My boyfriend grew up in the town, and all I can say is that it's a nice place to be from--far, far from. Spokane is religious, conservative, and overwhelmingly white, and it's not an easy place for gays or African-Americans or Democrats or Jews or atheists to live.
I know it wasn't an easy place for my boyfriend to grow up gay; he was physically assaulted repeatedly in high school. (When his mother complained to the principal she was told that the abuse would continue so long as he insisted on "acting like that.")
It can't have been a good place for West to grow up gay either. But none of the sympathy I felt for middle-aged gay men I met in the early 1980s extended to West--or to any closeted middle-aged men today who fear getting caught.
West is 54 years old. That means he was 18 in 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots. He was 26 in 1977, the year that Harvey Milk was elected to the board of supervisors in San Francisco. He was 29 years old when I was 17 and hanging out in bars in Chicago.
He was 34 years old when my boyfriend was being beaten in his Spokane high school, in a district that West represented in the Washington State legislature.
Jim West knew better. He knew he didn't have to live a lie. He knew he could have lived as an openly gay or bisexual man--bisexual is all West has admitted to in most of his interviews, although no pictures of young women were found on his work computer--but he chose not to. Unlike the older gay men I met in 1981, West and other closeted middle-aged men today didn't come of age at a time when no one could conceive of openly gay and lesbian people and communities. (Or politicians: Washington State has four openly gay members of its legislature.) Jim West chose the closet and shame and lies and hypocrisy.
So while I had sympathy for gay men who came out late in life in the 1970s and 1980s, I find I have no sympathy for Jim West or other men like him today. Their stories aren't tragic, they're pathetic. They didn't miss out. They opted out. Fuck 'em.
Savage writes the syndicated sex advice column Savage Love and is editor of The Stranger newspaper in Seattle.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Jan 31, 2006|
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