I’m surprised that the outrage has been nearly universal, judging from online comments to news stories about the tragedy. Unmoderated comments to news stories don’t usually bring out the best in humanity (last week some humanoids on CNN seriously suggested hanging an 11-year-old babysitter who accidentally killed a toddler), but this has been different. No quotes from Leviticus, no Fred Phelpsian blather about Clementi being in hell. Even Bible-thumpers (with the possible exception of one Mormon bigwig) joined the overwhelming chorus of “Dude, not funny!”
The tragedy has reminded many people, as it should, that the fight for equality still has a long way to go, but I say that the mere fact that there is such indignation shows that we’ve come a long way in a relatively short time.
The first time I ever saw the word “homosexual” was in Mad Magazine, which is appropriate. When I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, homosexuality was, at best, a subject for ridicule. Teenage boys used the word “fag” like it was going out of style (which, I guess, it did), and they weren’t talking about cigarettes. I remember one boy in my high school who was strongly rumored to be gay, and some of the things they did to him were, looking back, pretty cruel. One year, he was my class’s highest vote getter for homecoming attendant. Real funny, huh? (A faculty adviser with some decency threw out every ballot with his name on it.)
I didn’t grow up with any “out” gay people. For all I knew, gay men were these weird people who lived in San Francisco and listened to disco and would try to recruit me into their lifestyle if given half a chance. Then came college. Quite a few college classmates, including some of my fraternity brothers, were gay, although I didn’t know it at the time.
The incident at Rutgers reminds me of an event from my college days that has gone down in history—or at least the history inside my head—as “The Rude Awakening.”
I went to college long before webcams, so when we wanted humor at someone else’s expense, we had to use more low-tech means, like the good old rumor mill. One night I heard from one of my fraternity brothers that another brother had told him that two male classmates woke him up one night by having sex.
For some reason, I thought this was hilarious. There is genuine humor in the situation, albeit of the crass variety that is so popular in dude-bro movies nowadays. If you were the person who had been, well, awakened, what would you say? (“Uh…hey, guys, let’s go get some White Castles!”) And, let’s face it—as open-minded as I like to think I am, two men having sex is not on the short list of the things I’d most like to see when I wake up in the morning.
Of course, I was assuming not only that the…uh…captive audience actually was in the same room (he could have just heard them from another room—and why would they go at it with someone else in the room, unless they were really kinky?), but that the incident actually happened. Hey, it was funny! Who cared if it was true?
The incident was good for nothing more than some stifled giggles whenever I heard one of the parties’ names mentioned for a year or so. Then came my fraternity’s Hell Night.
One of the rituals involved each of the pledges being seated in a chair and asked questions with a third-degree light being shined in his face so he can’t see the questioners. The questions were fairly innocent, along the lines of “What does this fraternity mean to you?”
Two or three pledges into the ritual, who should have his turn but one of the alleged participants in the “Rude Awakening”?
I was in my cups—and bowls—(I had not yet learned that, even if I sing like him at karaoke, Jim Morrison was not a role model) and I’m sure you can guess where my mind was going. The problem was that I was laughing too hard to ask the questions, so I tried to get other people to do the dirty work.
“Know what you oughta do?” I whispered to the guy next to me. “Ask him if he’s ever been a fag…
Luckily for all concerned, nobody took the bait. Nothing came out of the incident except me making a fool out of myself. It wasn’t the first time and it certainly wasn’t the last.
I would like to think that, given the more tolerant atmosphere now, that if I were in college today, the thought of outing somebody in such a humiliating way would not have crossed my mind.
But the tragedy at Rutgers had me thinking—what if things had gone differently that night? What if I had been able to get those words out of my mouth? How many lives could I have damaged over a puerile, and somewhat mean-spirited, joke?
Could “The Rude Awakening” have become far ruder than I imagined?
[Note: I realize that quite a few people from college could be reading this. I’m not naming names, since “The Rude Awakening” may have never happened (and what if it did?), but if you recognize yourself in any of the above mess, I apologize. Your behavior is not the point, but rather mine and that of far too many others.]