Sunday, April 23, 2006

Human Again

I don’t have any deep insights or sage advice, but I want to do my part and blog against heteronormativity, so instead I’ll share a story with you all about the night I started to care about gay rights.

I watched the Academy Awards from start to finish for the first time my ninth grade year. Not only had Beauty and the Beast (one of my favorite movies at the time*) been nominated for Best Picture but the Disney animators had done a special segment in which Beauty and Beast were to announce the winners of one of the Oscars. I was still in my “I’m going to be an animator for Disney!” phase, so there was no way I was missing this.

The biggest shock of the night (for me) was not, however, Beauty and the Beast losing (sniff sniff) out to Silence of the Lambs, it was learning that the man who was responsible for all of those wonderful lyrics in Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid had recently died of AIDS. Well, actually, I suppose you could say it was learning that he had died of AIDS and that he had been gay.

I had no hate for “teh gay” in ninth grade. Kids were not yet using “gay” as a synonym for “lame.” (At least not as far as I knew). I felt no real sympathy for non-straight people or interest in gay rights either. Ellen had not come out Rosie had not come out. Rock Hudson had come out years earlier, but I had no idea who he was. No one I knew was gay. Or, at least, I didn’t know of anyone who was gay.**

The only thing I really knew about gays was that gay men*** were at high risk for AIDS and a lot of them had died from it and were going to die from it. I knew this because I was in 6th grade during just about the only time in history that America has had mildly decent sex education for a significant percentage of it’s pre- and early adolescent students. In 1989 people were still scared shitless of AIDS, and people had been scared long enough to develop and implement a few sensible prevention strategies. Among them was sex education for children before they were likely to become sexually active. So, along with our brand-spanking new D.A.R.E. training, my classmates and I went through a several week course (parents were able to opt their kids out) on reproduction, sex, the various various ways to practice safe sex****, and what we could get if we didn’t practice safe sex.

Well, ok, that wasn’t all I knew about gay issues. I also knew that homophobes were stupid. I knew this not because I thought that being gay was ok, normal, or acceptable. I honestly thought very little about it. I knew this because, as part of our sex education course, my class watched a made for TV movie about Ryan White. I learned from watching the movie that the parents who were mean enough to call Ryan names in his own front yard tended to call him things like “faggot.” I didn’t need my teacher to point out to me how stupid this was. Furthermore, I had gone through major surgery myself in 1979, which meant I had just barely missed being at risk for contracting AIDS through transfusion - the same way Ryan White got it.

I knew that Ryan and I had something in common, but I felt only sympathy for, not connection to, the blurred faces of the terminally ill gay men in the video they showed us at school. That night though, when Howard Ashman’s “longtime companion“ took the stage – dressed all in black except for his bright red ribbon - to accept the award for best song, I finally had a face to go with all those blurred out pictures, and a small part of how I saw the world changed in a subtle but extremely significant way.

At the time, I saw Belle and, yes, even Ariel, as very feminist heroines. Punky was no longer on the air, Buffy did not yet exist, and Disney’s newest princesses were a lot better than their old ones (shell bras notwithstanding). They had nothing on Charlotte Doyle or Jo March, but compared to everything else on television or in the movies (for kids, I mean - this was the year of Fried Green Tomatoes, Thelma and Louise, and Silence of the Lambs), a heroine who reads incessantly and another who defies her father simply because she’s so damn curious***** seemed practically revolutionary. The lyrics the characters sang helped a lot in forming my opinion of them as feminist heroines. It’s hard to listen to

Bright young women
Sick of swimmin’
Ready to stand
several times and not see unsubtle hints of feminism, no matter how much heteronormative propaganda is thrown in for good measure.

That night, though, I began thinking of the implications of lines****** like
I don't see how a world that makes such wonderful things - could be bad.
And later, what it must have felt like to write songs like The Mob Song:
We're not safe until he's dead
He'll come stalking us at night
Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite
Kill the Beast!
and Human Again:
When I'm human again, only human again,
When the world once more starts making sense
knowing that one would almost certainly die soon from a disease that far too many people thought of as God’s punishment for being gay - a word many people are unable to differentiate from pedophile.

When Disney announced years later that they were extending health benefits to gay partners (and I consequently learned for the first time that they hadn’t before) I wondered what it must have felt like for Bill Launch to stand up there and accept an Oscar for a song his loved one had written – even as the company that had made money off the song acted as though such relationships either didn’t exist or weren’t worthy of respect.

When the idiot of the day complains about the campiness of Spongebob Squarepants, and warns parents not to let their children watch the show because it promotes ‘alternative” lifestyles, or when the Baptists began their boycott of all things Disney because the company finally extended health benefits to partners of gay employees, I always wonder if any of these people have ever really listened to the part in Beauty and the Beast where the mob cries:
We don't like
What we don't understand
In fact it scares us

I rather think the answer must be "no."

*I regret to inform you that you will never hear stories about my punk rock days. I am a complete geek, through and through.

**Turns out my elementary school vice-principal was gay. Which I did sorta suspect at the time since I knew that he had a male roommate, but lived in a big house up in the foothills and so likely didn’t have a roommate for financial reasons. They now have a ranch together in Montana. I kid you not. :)

***Lesbians seemed to be completely invisible

****Dental dams were not mentioned however, which is further support for Amanda’s argument.

*****Ok, yes, she was curious about a boy. But still, she was curious before the boy came along, too.

******This line is spoken, not sung, but it is spoken close enough to the beginning of one of the songs that it’s hard to imagine that whoever wrote the words didn’t mean for them to have larger significance.

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