Guest post by Mark Zubro, Lambda Award winning author of Safe and Pawn of Satan
Part of this was posted on Huffington Post under the title “A Walk to the Store.” This is a more full treatment of the topic:
One of the questions often asked in interviews with reporters, on panels at mystery conventions, or when I’m making personal appearances, is if I have experienced any discrimination connected with my being an openly gay teacher, while having twenty-three gay mysteries published.
Remember, at the time the books first came out, February 1989, of the people who were writing gay mysteries, a few were out, but most of the people who were writing them used pseudonyms, were actually married to a member of the opposite sex, or were in some other closet.
As so many of us have heard and indeed preached, it is important for us to come out so people know who we are. The decision to use my real name, first, middle, and last names was made in 1988. Remember this was before the Senate even passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was instituted to try and ameliorate an even worse policy. Using all three names was a defiant gesture of being proud and open about the tremendous accomplishment of writing a book and having it published.
There were a few mainstream gay authors using their real names at the time. Armistead Maupin comes to mind. And there were others.
I do wonder about so many who have preached we need to come out. So many in the gay media and in gay organizations preach being open, but what exactly are those now, but especially back then, were they risking? They’ve got jobs in gay media and jobs in gay publishing. For those of us who live in conservative areas with jobs in conservative school districts, the risk back then was real. And remember in more than half the states in this country, it is still legal to fire someone from their job just for being gay. It was legal to do so at the time in Illinois.
At the time the first book was published, the superintendent received two letters complaining about me. One complained about a teacher using gay characters in a book. As if, then, authors were to be limited by profession; as in an electrician could only write books with these type of characters; or a waiter could write books with only this, that, and the other type of character. The other complained about what I might be saying about my private life in the classroom. Basically they meant we don’t like this gay guy teaching our kids. And it could have been a problem. But the superintendent simply wrote them letters reassuring them that there was no problem. So I was lucky that there were only two letters, if luck it was? Or I was lucky that the superintendent wasn’t a homophobic pig, if luck it was? He only told me after the fact when the letters had been received and replied to. He gave me copies and did not discuss the issue.
I did receive lots of positive feedback from my colleagues. Perhaps the other members of the English department and other members of the staff were happy for me in having an actual real book published by a real New York, big time publisher. Doesn’t every English teacher dream of writing a book and having it published? Or maybe the homophobic pigs just kept their mouths shut?
But in terms of discrimination the students were another possible issue/problem. Although it turns out mostly, they didn’t care that I’d had a book published. It was an adult world of books that was foreign and uninteresting to them. They did want to know if it made me rich, and were, I believe, disappointed when I told them no. Not perhaps as disappointed as I, but still.
They may or may not have been interested in my private life but then, as now, my private life is about the same, pretty dull and boring. At the time I taught, ran the teachers’ Union as president, went home and read books and wrote books. Now as a retired teacher I sit at home and read books and write books. Sometimes I vary the routine, then as now, with naps or eating chocolate. I long ago learned I was good at dull and boring. I believe in going with your strengths. Those are two of mine and I’m sticking with them.
There were, however, problems of discrimination with the kids.
There was one essay from an eighth grader, who wrote in part the following: “I know he’s gay because I know what his books are about. They’re about gay people. I think my dad is right about what should happen to gay people, a bullet hole in the head.” This student was in my class for a full year. I didn’t read the essay with this comment in it until after the school year was over. I found this more sad than anything else.
Then the following occurred and I learned how pervasive the discrimination and danger from some of the students was back then. The following is all true.
I walk to the convenience store down the street every day to get my newspapers and so I can claim I’m getting exercise every day. Yes, even in winter, I just bundle up and then bundle up some more and hope I don’t slip on the ice. Tripped and fell once last year as I got distracted by a beautiful dog who was being taken into the animal grooming place two doors down from the convenience store. Just a klutz, no medical issues.
Once in a blue moon I run into former students. At least they introduce themselves as such, since some of them are now in their twenties, thirties, forties or even early fifties.
One Saturday a woman in her thirties who was chatting with one of the clerks at the store turned to me and asked the usual, “Aren’t you?” and I said the usual, “I’m sorry I don’t remember your name. Please tell me.”
I wouldn’t have recognized her in a thousand years. She told me her name, and she has a husband, kids, and lives in town. So, we chatted less than five minutes, and I walked back home.
That next day, Sunday, she’s there again. She introduces me to the clerks at the store adding that she always liked me as a teacher and said I was always good to her and her friends. That was good. But the conversation quickly lagged, like one of those moments when you kind of don’t want to be talking to this person, or at least can’t think of anything to say, and are starting to feel uncomfortable. I finished the conversation and walked home.
The next Saturday, she was there again. She’d been chatting with the clerk again, but as I turned to go, she followed me out of the store. The weather was nice that day as it has been.
Over the few days of brief conversations, we’d talked about other students who were in the same year with her. I usually remember the kids from a particular year, if at all, as most teachers do, by the most rotten kids in the class. Since she was in her thirties, the people and events we were talking about happened over twenty years ago just after the first books were out.
The most rotten kid that year was Biff. (fake name here)
The woman — I’ve forgotten her name now — and since she was married her name wasn’t the same as when she was a kid, said that her husband had gone to a school in the next district over from mine. Her husband had been best friends with Biff and his cronies.
Then she apologized to me. She told me Biff, but not with her husband — maybe I believed that — came to my parking lot and flipped my car. She said she was so sorry for that, and she always liked me as a teacher.
I told her that no one had ever flipped my car, if she meant as in turned it over on its roof.
She said she’d always wondered if what they’d bragged about had been true. She then listed the other things they’d done.
These were all too true.
One time, my car had been picked up and moved about three feet from the perpendicular. I drove a high-mileage, small compact car so it was possible. Two other times the windshield was smashed. Another, nails in tires. A broken window in the apartment. Sand in the gas tank — I got a locking gas cap in all subsequent cars. The list went on.
At the time, I’d called the police for a few of the incidents, but there was nothing to be done. I had no clue as to the identity of the perpetrators.
It didn’t all happen at once — in fact over about a four-year span.
Stupid me. All the little things I dismissed or didn’t pay attention to. I asked once at the place where I went to get replacement tires, wasn’t it odd that I was getting nails in my tires so often. Couldn’t someone be sabotaging them? The clerk at the time said no, they must be nails from construction sites. Much as I might fantasize about studly construction workers, I’d never so much as gotten close to a construction site and certainly have never driven through one.
The woman reiterated that they used to brag about what they’d done to get the fag.
Teenage homophobia. A form of intimidation and bullying.
I never put it all together. The incidents all happened too far apart for me to connect them.
I think on some of those interviews and panels I may have said something like, ‘oh I was pretty lucky, there wasn’t much of a problem with homophobia, only a few letters from parents, and then I’d tell the story about the letter.’ Turns out there was constant homophobia of a violent and dangerous kind, and I missed it.
The woman at the store apologized several times. Repeated that her husband wasn’t involved. Named the names of kids I’d long forgotten who’d helped Biff.
So, yes, the bullying of a teacher, against an openly gay writer. And I was too naive or stupid or arrogant to see it. What a fool.
She was so was so nice and so apologetic.
I ask myself how I couldn’t have put it together? The basic fact is, I didn’t.
The apology happened recently. The events she was apologizing for happened in the early ’90s after my first books came out. I ask myself have things really gotten better for us? I often think they have, but then there are headlines about another gay teen committing suicide. I imagine they are getting better, but then I still see us as the only minority whose rights are put to a vote. I try to remember that in all the years between Dred Scott and Brown vs. Board of Education, African Americans mostly lost court cases.
When you are in the middle of a storm, it always seems a long way until the end. But there are signs of hope for us, some large and global, some small and personal. I think about the president and the ringing phrase in his inaugural address, “From Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall,” and I have hope. I think about the Illinois senate taking a positive vote for marriage for us on Valentine’s Day, and I believe there is hope for us in this world. I listen to, instead of further scorn and derision, a woman making an apology to an author many years later, and I believe things have gotten better.