What I am too angry to ask

Driving home from work last night, I caught the tail end of Terry Gross’s interview with Andrew Rannells.  Rannells is one of the stars of the new NBC sitcom “The New Normal,” and played the lead in the original Broadway cast of “The Book of Mormon.”  He sounds like a talented and intelligent guy, though thus far I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything.

There was a part of the interview, however, that had me smiling in recognition.

The earliest memory I have of that, honestly, is watching maybe Clash of the Titans or Grease 2 — watching that and really having strange feelings about Harry Hamlin and Maxwell Caulfield. And I was 4 or 5 at the time, and just like having a crush and understanding what that was, and verbalizing that crush, which I’ve never really [spoken] to my family about specifically, but they were aware of the fact that at 4, I had a crush on Maxwell Caulfield — like, that was a thing, and not like I wanted to be him, [but] like I wanted to date him. So when I came out when I was 18, and I graduated from high school and I felt like that was the time to officially say it, I surprised zero people in my family. …

You can swap out Hamlin and Caulfield, neither of whom appeared on my radar screen as a small child.  (My only real memory of watching “Clash of the Titans” was hiding my eyes when the scary stop-motion monsters came on screen.)  But crushes on guys, even as a young boy?  You bet.

Not so long ago, I saw pictures of myself as a boy on a family trip to England.  I looked at the way I was standing, and I started laughing this wry, dry laugh.  The boy in that picture is gay, my friends.  Even if I hadn’t known it was me, I could see it in the way he’s posing for the picture.  I’ve always been gay, even if I didn’t know what it meant or couldn’t have put it in those terms at that time in my life.  I no more chose to be gay than I chose to have brown curly hair (it was blond then).  By whatever process it happened, it was baked into the cake by the time that picture was taken of me at six or seven.

However, by the time I got to junior high, I knew.  I knew with absolute certainty by the time I was thirteen.  And I knew with exactly the same kind of certainty that I had damn well better keep that shit to myself, because there would be no calamity that could befall me quite so calamitous as letting it slip.  Maybe some places in the United States would have been a happy place to be for a gay 13-year-old in the late 1980s but not my hometown.

And, of course, not my church.  At approximately the same time in my life that I was coming to understand precisely how I was different from all the other boys, I was also being told in Sunday school that gays were out to deliberately spread AIDS.  A few years later, at a youth group event with a different church (though one with essentially the same social views) I heard the speaker talk about shipping all gay people off to a desert island, and heard the approving laughter and applause of my peers.

With all of this in mind, perhaps you will forgive me for the massive contempt I feel for the likes of Bryan Fischer, Gary Bauer and the other denizens of the so-called “Values Voter Summit.”  Perhaps the sheets of blinding, shimmering rage that fill my vision when I see their faces, or the clamor of rank loathing that rings in my ears when I hear them speak… perhaps you can understand it?  I can remember the kind, goodhearted and generous people who attended the churches of my youth, and try to think well of the people who would listen to these men and nod in agreement with them, but I am frail and human and too angry to do it with much gusto.  Because I want to take that poor, miserable 13-year-old boy out of their poisonous classrooms and tell him that they’re wrong, and that there are other grown-ups out there who would tell him so.  And of course it is far too late for that.

My colleague and friend Tod is attending the Values Voter Summit to meet these people and find out what they are like as individuals, as real people rather than political caricatures.  It is a commendable goal, to want to understand people whose views are so different from your own.  He is going with more open-heartedness and equanimity than I could possibly summon.  I wish him well, and am eager to see what a smart and decent man like him has to say about seeing the intelligence and decency in people on the other side of the cultural divide.

But me?  What would I ask them, if I could unclench my teeth in their presence and keep my voice from rising or breaking?  I would tell them what I heard in their churches, and ask them if they still believed it.  I would ask them if they were sorry at all, or if those words were the same ones they’re still speaking now.  I would ask them what good it did to render despondent a 13-year-old boy who had been gay forever, and would remain that way forever no matter what they said.  I would ask if they thought they had sinned against him in any way, and if they felt they needed his forgiveness and God’s for their hatred and their pride.

That’s what I would ask them, were I there.  But I am not, because there is no place in this country I would rather be less than in their company.  I admire my friend his generosity of spirit, and wish I shared it.  But I don’t.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. I’ll try to explain (not defend, exactly) where many (not all, sadly, not all) are coming from.

    Sure, there is a far-too-large component that merely does not like gay people and finds the very idea gross. This doesn’t strike me as even the majority, though.

    The biggest component has a book that says it’s a sin. And, so, it’s a sin. Now, we can get into discussions of what Paul meant when he talked about sin (“missing the mark”, like with a bow and arrow and not getting a bullseye every time, like our Father in Heaven is Perfect) but if I had to categorize the attitude that I see most often communicated, it’s not the revulsion of homophobia, but the sadness that folks have toward, say, gambling addiction. It’s an excess of a reasonable thing to enjoy that has a focus other than the one that we’re supposed to have.

    Now, I don’t know if that makes it better or worse, I don’t know if the folks have discovered that open contempt makes for horrible press releases and so have modified their criticisms to “more in sadness than in anger” kind of criticisms… but there is a huge chunk that falls into the category of people who are communicating that they have this opinion for reasons other than that they are ugly people deep down.

    It’s worse than that. They want to help. They want to help you be a better person.

    • “We pray for you in sorrow, as for all sinners, but hold you in Christ’s love” is a stance I can understand, even if I do not agree.

      “We believe you are uniquely perverted and diseased, and are worthy only of our disgust and disdain” is not.

      • The latter can be shamed away and made to be something that no one says in polite company anymore (well, no one but Fred Phelps and his ilk).

        That may be why the former appears (from my perspective as a white male in Colorado Springs, anyway) to be the position that people profess to today.

        In public, anyway.

          • You have a stronger stomach than I do. I can only sit next to someone who thinks I need to be saved for so long before needing to excuse myself until next Christmas.

      • “We pray for you in sorrow, as for all sinners, but hold you in Christ’s love” is a stance I can understand, even if I do not agree.

        If there was an equal attitude toward all sins, I could understand. But read the Slacktivist blog — evangelicals have decided that some sins are worse than others, and they’re not the ones Christ railed against in the Gospels.

        I don’t give Christians a pass for that stance, unless I see it as part of a whole.

  2. Russell,

    First off – great piece as usual. Second, please take this comment as sincere and not concern trolling:

    If you were in a room with an open-minded, but anti-gay individual (I realize that might be an oxymoron) how would you go about trying to change their mind? Would you tell that same story of you having crushes on men from an early age as a way of explaining it as a natural impulse and not a result of some psychological damage? Or would you take a different tract?

    • I think I know you well enough not to confuse you with a concern troll, Mike. (Loved your post about progressive conservatism, by the way, but I try to avoid comments that say little more than “I like this!”)

      I would start that conversation with a question, and one asked with sincerity and without rancor. “Is it possible that you might be wrong?” Not that my interlocutor is wrong, but that he (I’ll just use “he” for rhetorical ease) is willing to simply admit the possibility. If the answer is “yes,” that he is willing to accept that he might be wrong (which is what I think you mean by “open-minded”), then the conversation can proceed. If he is full of (literally) religious certainty, then there is no point in continuing.

      Then I would just tell him who I am, and have always been. Not to in any way denigrate the experience of those who realize and accept that they are homosexual relatively late in life, but that was never me. I have always known that I was different, and at puberty I knew exactly how. There was no choice whatsoever involved. Indeed, I would have been insane to choose something so despised in my community as homosexuality. I spent a tormented adolescence desperately wanting to be anything but gay. And insofar as I am a happy and well-adjusted man, it is because at age nineteen I finally just accepted that it was no phase I was in, it was no part of me that ever would or could change, and that I had better just get used to it and let everybody I cared about know.

      I can no more understand how to find a woman sexually attractive than I can understand the mind of an octopus. I can love women, celebrate their company and cherish their friendships and appreciate their beauty, but I cannot understand how to think of them sexually. And conversely I cannot not think of men that way. I can pay lip service or dissemble or torment myself into a pantomime of heterosexuality, but it will always be foreign to my true nature and false.

      • “I can no more understand how to find a woman sexually attractive than I can understand the mind of an octopus.”

        Is this true? I’m not so sure.

        I think the way I have always understood what it might be like to be gay has been to ask myself, what if it were women that I were not allowed/supposed to be attracted to, but men? Would that cause me to be aroused by men? Would it mean that I no longer hungered for or craved a woman on a physical level, or longed for emotional intimacy with a woman instead of a man?

        The answers to those questions seem so obvious to me. I assume that, with a quick pronoun switch here and there, it is exactly what it is like to be gay. Social implications aside, I suspect that – as in most things – we are all far more alike than different.

        Of course, I might be wrong.

        • Let me rephrase in a deeply nerdish way. I can “understand” it intellectually. I can grasp the concept. But I cannot grok how to be attracted to women. I do not have a sense of what it is to find a woman’s breasts or legs sexually arousing. I can see a picture of Aishwarya Rai and be staggered by her beauty, but it is closer to how I feel seeing the Duomo of Milan than how I feel when I see a picture of Tom Daley.

          • 2 things:

            1.) I don’t know why you guys gotta bring octopuses into this again. I thought we established already that the Japanese are weird.

            2.) I get what both of you are saying. What makes it harder to explain, is that it is possible to get crushes on people (of either gender) that you are not sexually attracted to – when potentially making a new friend, there can be a period where you are thinking of that person, trying to impress them, worrying about what they think of you, imagining spending time with them – this phenomenon has been a topic of some of the ‘bromance’ comedies of late, and ‘Louie’ did a pretty good ep on the topic – just like when you are crushing on someone that you *are* sexually attracted to. So the sexual attraction part can be completely independent of the crush part.

          • “I do not have a sense of what it is to find a woman’s breasts or legs sexually arousing.”

            Oh, it’s fantastic.

            Seriously speaking, this is a fantastic piece. Mind if I share it with some fellow educators? Your insights into the development of sexual orientation are helpful to compliment the academic research I often present.

      • Russell,

        Part two of my question:

        I know I personally struggle with the concept of nature vs. nurture. I am 100% convinced that some people, like yourself, are born gay and nothing could change that. I am also 100% convinced that some people can be nudged in one direction or another depending on the circumstances. Maybe they are truly bisexual and they just ‘pick a team’. I don’t know.

        Acknowledging my belief that there are nature homosexuals and nurture homosexuals, I couldn’t even begin to determine how many there are of each group though I’m prety sure the nature homosexuals are the overwhelming majority.

        Where I think a lot of opposition comes from is from people who believe the nurture group is a lot larger. They think that for a lot of gays it’s a concious choice. I suspect more than a few of these people had or maybe even acted on sexual curiosity at some point in their lives and then made a choice to remain heterosexual. I think for many of them they believe practicing homosexuals made the opposite choice.

        • I just realized that isn’t a question. Sorry. I guess it was more of a statement.

        • This may seem somewhat ironic coming from a gay guy, but the more time passes the more open-minded I get about bisexuality.

          I, and I think a lot of gay guys like me, have reacted negatively to the idea of male bisexuality. I always kind of interpreted to be guys who really were gay but were trying to kid themselves. I have come to understand that belief to be its own kind of closed-mindedness, and have also begun to suspect that people as clearly and unambiguously gay as me may be rarer than I thought. I’ve known enough mostly-gay guys who evince at least some sexual interest in women to realize that I was probably wrong.

          All of this is to say that I suspect the fluidity of human sexuality is probably more complex than the gay/straight dichotomy admits, and this fluidity is experienced by more “straight” people than perhaps they are inclined to admit. (NB. This is not the same thing as saying that all homophobes are really just self-loathing gays.) I suspect the “they just chose wrong” belief is out there, but to what degree it informs anti-gay bias writ large I couldn’t say.

          • I understand where you’re coming from with the ‘grok’ how to be attracted to women. I’ve been intimate with a woman – but it wasn’t because I was sexually attracted to her – it was more of a curiosity. She was bisexual and wanted to be intimate – and I flat out told her that while I was willing to experiment, I didn’t believe I’d enjoy it.

            I felt very detached throughout the experience, and I didn’t really ‘get’ anything from it other than a reaffirmation that I’m ‘strictly dickly’.

            In some ways, I think bi-sexuals have a better deal – they’ve doubled their dating pool.

          • Dewey:
            “In some ways, I think bi-sexuals have a better deal – they’ve doubled their dating pool.”

            Or, more likely, doubled the odds of being dumped on a Saturday night!

          • It must be Woodman week around here:

            Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night.
            Woody Allen

          • the more time passes the more open-minded I get about bisexuality.

            Says the man who wants to spend eternity with Annie Lennox and Phylicia Rashad.

          • Are you kidding? I think it would be a gas to spend eternity with any number of awesome women, both those known to me and those I know only as celebrities. (An eternity without Rose would be no heaven.)

            There would be zero sex, of course, but I’d probably be having too much fun to care.

          • The phenomenon I have seen several times, all with women, is the woman who has two or three rough heterosexual relationships or even a failed marriage and suddenly decides they are gay. In a few of those examples they end up becoming straight again at some point in the future. It makes me wonder if they were really bisexual or if sexuality is more fluid for women (I think there’s certainly some anecdotal evidence to support this and also the entire porn industry).

            I also wonder if 50 years ago these women would have just become nuns.

        • No. I think what’s going on is a bit deeper than that.
          I thinkt hey really believe it when they say “gay marriage would destroy our marriage”
          Their marriage is a sham, you must understand.
          They are going through the motions, even though they really don’t swing that way.

          Having other gay people be happy, be acknowledged for who they are… it really would destroy their marriage.

          People don’t tend to say counterintuitive things for no reason. Sometimes the easy explanations are best.

        • I see a synthesis in this nature/nurture debate. Consider our first few sexual encounters: mine were interesting but not really what I wanted or had even expected. We have preferences, some of which might be static, as in the worthy Russell’s observation he’s always had a preference for men and can only approach heterosexual desire from a completely abstract viewpoint.

          But those preferences evolve and we refine them based not only on experience but by further insight into ourselves. Consider how we consciously decide not to pursue relationships we know are not good for us, though we are motivated by physical desire. Where did that knowledge arise? It’s not the sort of thing we can ascribe to nature and I don’t think it’s what we would call nurture either. It’s the painful realisation that some relationships are destructive, the wisdom which can only arise from sorrow.

          I remain friends with the first man who came out to me. He’s compartmentalised his life: sex never crosses over into meaningful relationships. I haven’t probed deeply into his love life: if he wanted me to know, he’d tell me. I did ask him if he’d ever loved anyone. He thought a while and replied, “Long ago, maybe. But I’m still not sure if it was, or not.”

          What do we want from a relationship? That’s the larger question. Sex might just be a matter of compatibility, an attribute of a relationship conducted on a larger framework. But sex does just fine on its own. Even within the context of a larger framework, sex is usually a delightfully selfish thing. Can’t over-think these things.

        • I don’t think of homosexual and heterosexual as binary options, but more as a spectrum. Russell might be 100% gay, some other person might be 100% straight, and I’m about 70% straight. The place on the spectrum is probably nature, as opposed to nurture. Your “nurture gays” might be the ones that are closer to 50-50, and being either bi, or tending slightly toward one gender or the other.

          A post on the Slacktivist blog compared sexuality to an orchard: we have all sorts of fruits, each in a variety of size, shape and smell, from lots of different trees. Hence the acronym QUILTBAG, which is an effort to at least categorize the trees.

          • Yeah there were a lot of issues with Kinsey’s work, but he was dead on right with the continuum. Sounds to me like you are either a 1 or 2. You aren’t alone.

        • Re: nature vs. nurture:

          As an abstract proposition, I’m willing to admit that something like “nurture” or even “choice” enters into our orientation, but that the nurturing and choice happen in a an environment of almost countless complications. The complications could be the biological (nature), social and institutional (nurture, but with a lot of its own rigidity and independent pathways that aren’t fully controllable by humans), and “identity” (“nurture” and “nature” and how our choices inform our dispositions and how the lifestyle options available to us interact with these dispositions).

          That’s all in the abstract, however. On the day-to-day level, I’m down with the “I’m born that way” way of explaining it.

  3. I met my first openly gay person when I was in my twenties. Coming from the 80’s bible belt I had brought some preconceived notions. He was a friend of my sisters, she was in the Springs close to where JB is now. The one thing I remember after leaving was thinking that this was a regular person, unlike all the sermons had indicated.

    Looking back I could have had many peers that were gay, but didn’t have any reason to activate the radar. No compelling reason to actively search. Hell i had my own set of problems, not a died in the wool bible thumper I was pushed out to the fringe.

    I am sorry you had to go through that. As its been said, if this is gods country, he/she can keep it.

  4. I’m going to have to have an uncomfortable convo with my mom soon.

    She is 70 and deeply religious, and thinks nothing of making disparaging comments about gay people. Whether this is due to her upbringing (Southern, conservative), temperament, or something else (it’s a weird thing to say, but my mom has never been particularly traditionally ‘feminine’; so in recent years I have sometimes wondered if there’s some element of self-loathing going on, to help explain the pointless and obstinate vitriol – not saying she necessarily must be closeted or anything, but maybe she was accused in her youth of being something she is not, or is just uncomfortable with any concepts that don’t fit 100% neatly into either/or categories; who knows. It’s just weird, because there are other topics she has mellowed on with age, but if anything, she seems more obstinate than ever on this one.)

    I have several cousins who are gay, and she loves them and treats them well to their faces, but some of the stuff she says around the family dinner table on the topic of gays in general is pretty harsh.

    So I don’t want her expressing this crap around my very young kids. I don’t expect to change her mind at this late date (any more than she’s gonna turn a gay person straight with her words somehow); but she needs to keep it to herself, when around me & mine.

    For all I know, either or both of my kids could be gay, and the last thing they need is to grow up thinking that their family/grandma (who dotes on them, ftr) does not love or accept them. The world is hard enough without that nonsense from your own family.

    So if anyone has ever had to have a similar conversation, or has any ideas on how to best go about it, I’m all ears.

    • You’re not going to change these oldsters. Here’s the fact of the matter, she’s probably saying the same nasty things about you. All that gay-bashing? That’s just to annoy you.

      • just to annoy you

        To be fair, some of it undoubtedly is. Trolling has existed far longer than the internet, and my family’s as good as any at it.

        I just want her to keep her mouth shut on the topic when my kids are about.

        • Then make it clear you’re not coming over if that’s the way it’s gonna be. You have the upper hand here: she wants to see her grandchildren.

        • harumph. you should meet my family. 😉
          Elevating trolling to an artform… and then taking it one step beyond.
          (trolling at the dinner table? how gauche).

    • Up until my husband started coming to family occasions (announced as my “friend” or “roommate” at my mother’s behest), one of my grandmothers would say warning things about homosexuals going to hell, the bible says so, etc. She would tend to say these things when I was the topic of conversation (and therefore not present), not necessarily to imply I was gay, but probably because I qua topic reminded her of these things people needed to know.

      My mother was exactly correct in how to handle things, though. Gradually, as my grandmother declined further in physical and mental health, she drove her family away from her. She wanted to meet her Maker, and her Maker was Making that unreasonably difficult. But she didn’t push me away, and she understood that she had better not push Jason away, either. It didn’t take long for her to “ask after” Jason every time we spoke on the phone. When I’d visit, she’d ask then, too, and then said I “should bring him by to see” her. The last time I saw her alive, at the funeral of one of her daughters, she treated Jason as well as, if not better than, my brothers wives. She loved our daughter, and loved seeing me as a father. But she never said a thing more about our souls except what she said to many others: “I’ll be praying for you.”

      I know this isn’t your dilemma, Glyph, but I thought the story might help anyway.

      • It does, actually. I am hoping it will go better than I fear. She really does love my cousins, and has worked with gay people in the past; it’s just when she feels ‘safe’ at home that she makes these remarks.

        Problem is, it’s no longer ‘safe’, not with my kids around. I don’t have any doubt that she’d still love them if they turn out to be gay; I just don’t want them hurt before they are old enough to understand that that would be the case, despite the things they have heard her say. The people in Russel’s history, most of them anyway, probably had no desire to hurt Russell himself; but hurt him they did anyway.

        • It’s so nice to hear, here and in other places around the League, how you and other parents of young children are concerned for the queer children that their children might be. I sing the refrain of “Everything Possible” to my daughter sometimes. The link may be too mawkish for some folks to get through, but the refrain is a sweet lullaby:

          You can be anybody that you want to be.
          You can love whomever you will.
          You can travel any country where your heart leads
          And know I will love you still.
          You can live by yourself; you can gather friends around;
          You can choose one special one.
          But the only measure of your words and your deeds
          Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.

          Good luck with your mother and your children.

          • 🙂 I love this song, and shared it with a friend while her baby was in the womb. She still sings it to him as he approaches six months.

      • I think this is a pretty sweet story, actually. She came to set aside her own prejudices and wound up treating your nuclear family as a unit of the larger family, something that probably took some effort on her part but she did it. Perhaps with some guidance initially, but that’s okay because it often takes some guidance to point out errors in oneself.

        Maybe she never set aside the basic underlying prejudice, but she learned how to treat you all right — she loved you and she loved your family through her love of you. That’s what it’s all about. The moral of the story is, cognitive dissonance is not always a bad thing.

      • “Up until my husband started coming to family occasions (announced as my “friend” or “roommate” at my mother’s behest), ….”

        My sister has been with her partner since I was about 6 or 7. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I realized they were gay. Before that, I just assumed they were two friends who were roommates in the house they bought together.

  5. My father’s side of the family were all bigots. Serious, hardcore, good-nigger and bad-nigger bigots. When black people were invited to my parents’ wedding, they cut off contact until well after I was born. They stayed that way all their lives. You’re not going to change people like that. They have to die off.

    Nobody’s going to get these homophobes off the radar but the undertaker. They won’t change. No amount of niceness or showing them you’re just ordinary people or how un-scary you are, they will go on being that way. They have to be opposed by people of good will everywhere. They have to be marginalised, ignored. Allow them to congregate in their fearful little cabals. Let them march, like the Nazis in Skokie, it’s a free country. And it’s a free country for the rest of us, too. We can call this what it is, bigotry.

  6. Mike sez, upthread:

    > I am also 100% convinced that some people can
    > be nudged in one direction or another depending
    > on the circumstances. Maybe they are truly
    >bisexual and they just ‘pick a team’.

    Well what’s “normal?” Well, let’s see.. if you’re standing in a room, stripped, and it’s dark, and you’re hugging a person and loving them and rubbing them up and down and they’re rubbing you and you’re rubbing together, and suddenly the light goes on and it’s the same sex, you’ve been trained to go “Aaaaaaagh!”… but it felt okayyyy..
    — G. Carlin

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