PERHAPS, AS HE HIMSELF HAS LONG SUSPECTED, CHRIS Ragonese was Chinese in another life. He was just a boy in grade school when he first observed how bright, clean, disciplined and hard-working the Chinese were. Those were the words that came to mind, everything a person should hope to be: bright, clean, disciplined and hard-working. How could he explain his fascination with their ease of spirit, their elegance and integrity? How could he explain his soulful familiarity with these people without first admitting that he sometimes wondered if he too were Chinese long, long ago?
In this life, Chris Ragonese grew up in a suburb of New York. One might have guessed that he was gay last December when he bleached a white stripe down the center of his hair to complement his double-pierced left ear, but his parents didn't. They didn't guess, and he hasn't told them yet. Like a lot of his gay friends at Georgetown University, he has tried but been unable to summon the courage one needs to do such a thing.
"They'll find out," he says. "Someone will slip and tell them or they'll read about it in the paper. I just can't tell them."
Chris is often full of worry. He only wishes he were less of a pessimist and more like Tom, his roommate. Since the beginning of the year, Chris has been living with Tom Reichert in a small studio apartment near Dupont Circle. They are not lovers, nor have they ever been. Tom says heterosexuals so often assume that if two gay men live together, they are automatically lovers, and this is something that has always bothered him. Tom says he has never been with either a man or a woman "that way," meaning in a sexual way. He is still a virgin, waiting for when it is completely right between him and the right person. He is waiting for love and commitment, a future. Chris says he believes Tom will find and fall in love with the right man, as will he. Chris has had a few short, ill-fated love affairs with Georgetown underclassmen, each one its very own heartbreak. He says it can be depressing.
Chris is 20, Tom 21. Chris can't help but laugh when straight men ask Tom how he knows he's gay when he's never had a serious sexual relationship with anyone. Tom knows. He knows what to say: "Before you slept with a girl, how did you know you were not gay? You just knew, right? Well, it's the same way."
Before classes began at Georgetown in January, Chris had a stylist in town dye his white stripe of hair black, fearing his Chinese language teacher would call on him and ask him to explain his appearance. He knew she would ask him to explain himself in Chinese and Lord knows doing so in English would have been difficult enough. Now all that remains of his blond mane is an extravagant, rusty-colored tail that reaches down to his back.
On weekends when Chris and Tom and their gay friends go out dancing, Chris wears makeup and his favorite black rhinestone earrings, black shirt, black pants and black boots. Down near Dupont Circle, people sometimes stare at him with derision and make faces. Mostly older people do this and tough, redneck types. He calls it their "what-are-you look," and he has decided that this look will not upset him. Neither will he get upset when people move away from him on the bus. People can do whatever they want to do. This is America.
Both Tom and Chris are in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. When Chris moves to China to study in the fall, some people will no doubt look at him funny over there, too. But if they look at him with scorn or hatred, it will be because he is a foreigner, and probably not because he chooses to wear what even he calls radical clothing.
Chris Ragonese is two years from graduating and walking into a life as rich and fantastic as the one of his dreams. He already knows what he hopes to make of himself: He will spend a year studying in Taiwan and mainland China; he will learn the ways and customs of the Chinese firsthand, not from some college textbook or structured series of hour-long lectures; he will fall in love with a wonderful man and they will enjoy a long, beautiful life together, one full of a million magic things; and later, after years of hard work and his share of successes, he will become the U.S. ambassador to the very country that once had been his own.
Tom also wants to one day work in this country's foreign service, but not in China. Proficient in Hebrew and Russian, he would like to live in the Middle East, preferably in Israel. Tom has wavy red hair and a voice like sweet water running away. He once tried piercing his ear, but the piercing didn't take; his lobes were still infected after six weeks. As a gag gift, two straight girls he knew and dated in high school sent him a pair of handcuff earrings. Couldn't you just see clean-cut, cherubic Thomas Reichert in handcuff earrings, dangling down to his shoulders like some strange promise of immorality?
Tom can be tough fighting for his civil rights, but he's got the heart of a muffin. Even at the gay bars, he wears clothes you find at department stores on the marked-down counters: plain old button-down shirts, plain old khaki and corduroy pants, plain old striped belts. It's the face that gets you: the blush of red in the cheeks, the way his smile seems pushed back by some unrelenting force or wind. He holds a prideful chin up when he's got something important to say.
Tom has a nice face, perhaps the most recognized face on campus. Either his name or picture has appeared in The Georgetown Hoya, one of two campus newspapers, almost every week since the beginning of the 1985-86 school year. People know him as a homosexual first, then as the outspoken and controversial chairman of the Gay People of Georgetown University (GPGU). Some get annoyed with him because he says things such as, "I happen to know that there are a lot of people on this campus who are gay but feel extremely insecure about it. These people don't yet identify themselves as gay, but they are. They don't let themselves sit down and think about sexuality. They're afraid to. They'd rather lie or ignore the issue altogether.
"When I meet someone, I'm always looking for telltale signs. 'Is he gay?' I wonder. 'Is he gay like me?' "
Walking to class, young men who might otherwise be identified as nice young men call Tom "faggot" and "homo." Somebody once walked up to him near Healy Circle and said, "Tom Reichert, I think the AIDS crisis is the best thing to ever happen in this country. I hope you all die." Something else happened just the other day on Wisconsin Avenue, when Tom was out walking with a couple of friends. A lone male voice lifted above the thunder of the afternoon rush-hour traffic, somebody shouting, "Die, queer!" Tom just kept walking, pretending to ignore the man on the street. When you're gay and as notorious as Tom Reichert, you learn how to pretend to ignore a lot of things.
Chris and Tom met at a GPGU meeting. Chris was sitting in the back of the room, there in search of support and the hope of making new friends. Tom was in the front, his hands in constant flight as he spoke, his hair a vivid flame under the lights. The majority of the group's 50-some members were present -- there were two or three lesbians in the crowd, the same two or three lesbians who always show up -- and Tom was discussing the issue that has made GPGU the most hated, misunderstood and oppressed group on campus.
For more than six years, GPGU and the Gay Rights Coalition, another gay student organization at Georgetown, have been embroiled in a legal battle against the university. D.C. Mayor Marion Barry has refused to certify a $197 million bond request for construction of a student center on campus pending the outcome of the suit to determine whether Georgetown, the largest Jesuit-run university in the country, did indeed violate the city's Human Rights Act by not "officially recognizing" the two gay student organizations.
Barry's action infuriated many students at Georgetown and ignited a storm of debate that continues to rage and divide the campus. Gary Krull, the university director of public relations, says, "We have been advised by legal counsel not to discuss the lawsuit until the full D.C. Court of Appeals renders its decision." In court papers, the university denied unlawful activity.
In February, The Georgetown Guardian, an off-campus student journal that claims to offer "the most elegant, articulate opinions to be offered by students, faculty and alumni of [Georgetown] University," carried this commentary on its Res Publica page: "We have to hand it to the Gay People of Georgetown (G.P.G.); they conducted themselves like real -- er -- men. (They're keeping the area hospitals busy too, we hear.) But seriously, G.P.G. represents the best dating service this campus has ever seen -- oops! did we say 'dating service'? we meant 'support group.' And what's better, now we don't have a student center thanks to them. It just goes to show: give a 'gay' an inch, and he'll take a hundred million dollars. (Oops! Did we say 'a hundred million dollars'? We meant 'a mile.')
Chris can get pretty moody, particularly when the subject of what homosexuality might do to his future comes up. One night at Mister Eagan's on Connecticut Avenue, Chris all of a sudden put his chicken sandwich down, slumped back in his chair and told Tom, "Sometimes I think that because of what I am, I've sacrificed all I've ever wanted in my life. I'll probably never be an ambassador."
Tom rolled his eyes and said, "So you're gay, so am I."
He was eating a platter of potato skins, chewing, trying to get the words out, "Once . . . you . . . get everything you've always . . . wanted, Chris . . . you just can't suddenly accept . . . not getting what you want anymore." He swallowed. "Of course you can have it."
When Tom first told his parents about his sexual orientation, they said, "What about your career, son? What about all the plans you've made?" Tom told them everything would work out. Being a homosexual would not prevent him from doing whatever he wanted to do.
But Tom Reichert was always that way, "full of the old power of conviction," as one friend puts it. He was a big headline kind of leader with big headline credentials. If he and his friends made such a nuisance of themselves that the administration was forced to address the matter of gay rights on campus, he figured something was being done right. He enjoyed seeing his name in the papers, offering what one of his friends calls "the good devil's viewpoint." How could he and GPGU not be recognized?
If his picture made the front page, smiling that smile, holding that prideful chin up, wasn't he there, wasn't he someone? One way or another, he was seen, and if he was seen, he was bound to be recognized, "officially" or not. For years, the university had allowed Dignity, a national organization that works to promote spiritual life among gays, to hold masses on campus. Was recognizing the gay groups so different from allowing gay masses on campus? Why such a hard line against GPGU and the Gay Rights Coalition?
He wondered how the university could be so hypocritical. In 1979, an openly gay priest who was a graduate student and dormitory director at Georgetown admitted in a Washington Star interview that he was a homosexual. Robert F. Hummel was also a leading champion of GPGU, which then had just begun its fight for university recognition. Newspapers reported that, shortly after the interview appeared, Bishop Walter Sullivan of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond forbade Hummel to offer mass, hear confessions or teach the Gospel. A few weeks after his suspension, Hummel told a reporter for Christopher Street, a gay publication, "The biggest disappointment is the way gay priests have been cowered into a hypocritical stance, and then try to justify their hypocrisy . . . I can go to any gay bar in Washington and point out one or two priests. I know a lot of gay priests."
If Hummel and other gay activists fought for what they knew to be right, Tom Reichert decided he would, too. At its very meanest, the controversy invigorated and inspired him. He relished the feud. It was not so bad, after all, being thought about and talked about. People knew his name. In fact, certain male members of the studentry who knew his name talked privately about wringing Tom Reichert's neck, while their women friends giggled and dared them.
One Jesuit in the theology department says the issue of "homosexual rights at Georgetown is a very, very delicate one." He wonders if recognizing the gay groups would imply or give signals that Georgetown and the church endorse the life style associated with homosexuality. The priest refuses to speak publicly about the group's fight because he is afraid of "giving up control of the words." When asked what he means by that, he says he wants to see how his sentences look on paper.
There has been heartache enough, he says.
Asked by a student newspaper why a certain gay activity could not be held on campus, Jack DeGioia, dean of student affairs, said, "Approval of the gay student groups was not given because it would be inconsistent with the history and Catholic tradition of this university." On hearing DeGioia's comments, Tom Reichert was at it again, crying out against what he called "blatant discrimination."
Then came the deluge of questions, all by Tom, all without answers: How could a school that claims to be Catholic accept federal funds without being expected to carry on as any other secular institution? How can Georgetown be so arrogant, so full of itself? Look at me, he said. Why does the word for homosexuality have to be gay anyway? Why couldn't it be fabulous?
He would like it that way. He could call home and say, "Mother, it's your son, Thomas. I've got some news for you, Mother. I'm fabulous. I've always been and always will be fabulous."
All over campus, students told gays, "I'll pray for you." It was like sticking the stem of a daisy into the barrel of a gun. Tom Reichert had an answer, "Don't pray for me, brother, not over this. Pray for you."
Four years ago, when he was a freshman and still afraid to come out and declare his sexual orientation, Tom was reluctant to attend GPGU meetings because they were held in the Intercultural Center, where long windows looked out on the campus. If he could look out, he knew, they could look in. That same year, he told Jason Powell, his straight roommate, that he was gay. They were in Harbin Hall, in the laundry room in the basement. Jason said, "I wondered why you were so miserable at all those dances."
Now Tom says, "Sometimes I want to put on a sign. 'Yes, It's Me. Tom Reichert, The Gay.' "
In September of last year, Tom wrote a letter to a campus newspaper, hoping to create even more controversy. He declared his love for "a guy," quoted Freud as having written that homosexuality "is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness," and pleaded for his civil rights, for "the right to an equal place in this wonderful country." Of his boyfriend, a student at Yale, Tom wrote, "We do talk a lot on the phone . . . and neither of us is interested in anyone else. We've discussed living together after college, and I really think this is the person I want to share my life with.
"It's a really wonderful relationship, and I hope that you're all feeling very envious right now."
A few months after the letter appeared, Tom and his boyfriend decided to end their five-year relationship. The distance killed them, he says. But it was not long before he met another eligible young man at a GPGU meeting who sparked his interest. His name was Michael Lewis, and they soon became the best of friends. Sometimes with crucial exams awaiting them the next morning, Tom and Michael, a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service, spent long hours on the telephone, talking about everything and nothing. With all that chatter, one friend asked, how could they not grow painfully weary of each other? On empty week nights, they often went out for Italian ice cream at a parlor on M Street, and on weekends, for cocktails and a run of the dance floors at Tracks, a gay bar in Southeast Washington.
"Do those two have something going on?" one female friend asked after observing them together on campus.
Like Chris, Michael Lewis regularly attends but seldom speaks up at the GPGU meetings. Mike has dark hair and deep-set green eyes and the slight build of an accomplished squash player or long-distance runner. Mike lives with four male Georgetown students in an apartment on campus. They are all heterosexual, and some of them reacted negatively when he announced his sexual orientation. After that, he could not talk to them.
Mike needed friends -- gay friends. He began attending the GPGU meetings after reading that the group had planned a dance on campus. He says he thought the dance, cosponsored by the Women's Caucus and the Progressive Student Union, was "a radical, exciting idea." Tom requested space for the dance in November, but by early January opposition had already begun to grow on campus. Leaders of conservative groups asked students, "Do you know there will be a gay dance at Georgetown?" and urged all concerned to call and inquire about it at the office of the university's president, Timothy Healy, S.J. Among those opposed to the dance was Mark Merritt, chairman of the Students for America.
Merritt says he was so upset by the idea of a gay dance on "the Catholic campus of Georgetown University" that he immediately went to the library and started reading "everything I could get my hands on about homosexuality." He read the Kinsey and Hite reports and current and back issues of The Blade, a gay Washington newspaper. As a result of his studies, he says he felt compelled to call and complain to the office of student affairs and to write an editorial for the Hoya, titled "Thank God the Gay Dance Died."
"Raised once again is the question of whether a Catholic university has the right to maintain its Judeo-Christian value system in the midst of deserters," Merritt wrote. "The active homosexual is not passive but evangelical with his sexuality. He constantly seeks new companions to share in his perversion."
Merritt added that the "typical lifetime homosexual male goes through over four hundred sex partners in his life."
When someone told Merritt that Thomas Reichert, leader of the radical GPGU, "had not gone through even one male sex partner in his life," Merritt laughed and said, "How many kids who are head of a football club don't play football? How many kids who are in an art club don't create art? If you're the head of a homosexual group, you're most likely an active homosexual. In fact, the leaders are generally the most active.
"If there existed a heterosexual group on campus called The Erotics, I would assume that the leader is a playboy and quite promiscuous. I assume the same thing with Tom Reichert, though in an unbiased fashion. I've never seen him have sex. But I believe it's both naive and foolhardy to believe he's a virgin."
Tom thought the gay dance would bring everybody together, at least for one night. He imagined men dancing with men, women dancing with women, and, for a little added spice, men dancing with women. But how could anyone expect something as extreme as a gay dance to get off the ground when most of GPGU's regular, bimonthly meetings were met with the most vehement opposition?
Chris got depressed. "Why do I always feel like we're fighting for our lives?" he said. "Why does sex have to matter so much?"
Less than two weeks before the dance's scheduled Jan. 24 date at the Hall of Nations, the university administration ordered GPGU to cancel the dance. The Georgetown Guardian editorialized: "Well, the 'gay' dance . . . went off without a hitch -- almost. The problem was, they invited a bunch of homosexuals to it." Tom Reichert got his name in all the papers, including The Washington Post, shouting out against discrimination. At about the same time, Chris Ragonese started worrying about using the bathroom facilities on campus.
He felt lost and guilty, wandering around campus, looking for a nice clean place where people wouldn't stare at him. Why was there always such a fuss over what he was? Had he ever used the bathroom for sex? No. Had he ever used it for anything other than what it was made for? No. "He's one of them," he feared the men in the bathroom were saying. "He's a queer." He spent weeks scouting the buildings on campus but finally came to learn which bathrooms were "safe," as he puts it, and which ones were not.
"I'm always afraid," he told his friends, "of being hated. I don't want to be hated." He thought of the good things, of China and what awaited him there. He once said going to China would be like going back home, and he remembered a girl named Becky Chang, a Chinese girl: bright, clean, disciplined and hard-working. When, in his sixth-grade year, a special day was set aside for mini-studies, Becky's mother came to the school to teach a class called "Getting to Know China." Only two students enrolled: Chris and somebody else. Why had no one else showed up for the class on China, he had wondered.
In his spare time, Chris started going to the library and studying Chinese characters. By his senior year in high school, he could count to 10 in Chinese and knew the history of the place. The day of his graduation, full of the dream of leaving -- of going to Georgetown and graduating with honors and moving to China and becoming the U.S. ambassador -- somebody congratulated him on finishing 10th in his class of 200. Chris was the only male student in the top 10. "Glad one of us made it," the man said. Chris shook the man's hand and watched him walk away. "No, sir," he said under his breath. "I'm afraid none of us made it."
Tom laughed the day Chris told him the story of his high school graduation, but Tom was laughing a lot those days, giddy over his remarkable new friendship with Michael. When some of his housemates came home late from a boisterous night at the bars, Michael gathered a few items of clothing and called Tom and Chris to see if he could stay the night at their place. Michael was afraid someone might get rowdy and try to hurt him while he slept, though no one ever had. Tom, ever gracious, refused to allow his guest to sleep on the floor and always offered his futon, which he kept rolled up and pushed against the wall during the day. "I don't mind sleeping on the floor," Tom said. "The floor's good for my back."
From the window of the apartment, one could see the exact spot at the Washington Hilton where John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Reagan. In the generous half-light that stole through the picture window and illuminated the walls, Tom and Mike talked about times that were long gone and times that may never be. They learned how little they had in common. Tom, for instance, had once seriously considered leaving the Catholic Church and converting to Judaism. Even before his year of studies in Jerusalem and Cairo, he decided that he no longer believed in Jesus Christ as his "personal Lord and savior." Michael loved the Catholic Church and still thought about a vocation in the priesthood.
"Do you think the church should remain a discriminatory body just to hold on to its heritage?" Tom said in a big voice.
"Yes, I do," Michael said. "But the truth is, Tom, I'm not really sure I have a place in the Catholic Church anymore."
There was something else. Michael said he also wondered if he had a place at home anymore with his parents and his older brother. Over the Christmas holidays, when he visited his family in his home town and tried to talk to them and explain just how he felt about things, his efforts seemed useless. His parents appeared unwilling to accept or condone his sexual orientation, and that made him angry. He cried about it. He shut the door to his room, sat on the edge of the bed and cried. Why was he always fighting about who and what he was? And why couldn't he get through to the people he loved, to anyone who didn't share his attraction for members of his own sex?
Sometimes it felt as if the fight had gone on forever. Back when he was in the seventh grade, Michael had sat behind a kid who demanded the teacher assign him a different seat because he had not wanted to sit near "the faggot." That was what the kids used to call him: "the faggot."
God made him this way, he said later. He knew that much. What he didn't know was why he was gay and what he was supposed to do with it.
"I would not choose this way," he tried to explain to his family. "I would not choose to be called names. What I have is a sexual attraction for men. I don't think it's an accident of nature or a disease and it's certainly not immoral. Neither is it a part of me that should keep me from God."
Michael asked Tom why everything had to be so difficult. When, he wondered, would the love of his parents feel as right and strong as it had when he was just a boy? Had his family not loved him then, when he chose to play with dolls and pretend to be Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz"?Sometimes he laughed at the memory. It was pretty funny, he said whenever the subject came up. His parents would invite guests over and he would wear the "Dorothy dress" someone had made for him. There was even the dog, one he and everybody else pretended was Toto, "Dorothy's dog." They had loved him then. They had clapped for him and held him close. They had laughed.
"I still don't understand the nature of the sin of what they're talking about -- homosexuality," Michael says. "It's not as simple as fornication. To the church, it's an aberration, it's sodomy. The pope says sex between two men is impossible. That's what he's come to, and if I were right and he were wrong, then I'd be the pope. I really don't understand it."
The place where Tom and Chris lived became Michael's sanctuary. He could hide at the apartment and be himself and talk with people who understood him. One night this spring, after three teen-agers jumped Mike as he was walking down Prospect Street in Georgetown, it was to the apartment he went to nurse his wounds and get well. The boys had sent hard fists into his face and body and demanded he give them his wallet. "Oh, God, Michael! What happened!" Tom had said when they ran into each other on campus. The corner of Michael's lip had been scratched and bleeding and his left eye bruised.
That night, Tom helped Michael clean the blood off his face, and as always, they talked. It was another one of those talks that twisted and spun out like some great road before them. "Verbal peregrinations," a friend called it. The next day, they talked some more.
"I'm afraid I've become obsessed with you," Tom said.
"What are you going to do about it?" Michael said.
"I don't know," Tom said. "I guess I'll get over it."
On Good Friday, Tom and Chris and Michael and a few other friends met in the apartment off Dupont Circle and made preparations for a night on the town. They were planning to go dancing at Tracks. Jason Powell, Tom's freshman-year roommate, was visiting from Montana and had brought a gift: a balsa-wood box of chocolate-covered mulberries. Everybody was eating the candies but Tom and Chris. Tom wasn't eating because Michael had told him he looked like "a 300-pound elephant" in the clothes he had on.
Tom had been so hurt by the remark that he took off the blue-gray shirt and white slacks he was wearing and disappeared into the dressing closet. He changed into his plain old plain-olds: plain old white button-down shirt, plain old corduroy pants, plain old paisley suspenders.
When a friend reprimanded Michael for embarrassing Tom, Michael shook his head and wondered aloud why he would treat his friend that way. He really cared for Tom, he said, though maybe not with the same intensity that Tom cared for him. He was even thinking about rooming with Tom during the summer. But romance? That was something else. Michael agreed that a round of "verbal peregrinations" was in order, just to get their feelings out in the open.
Chris did not eat the chocolate-covered mulberries because he was in the bathroom putting on his makeup. It was a good night for makeup because there was a full moon out, and that also made it a good night for dancing.
"An ideal evening," Tom said, sitting on the futon next to Michael. There was a Chinese calendar on the wall: 1986. "Time, time, time, Chris," Tom said to hurry his friend along.
Perhaps because of the festive occasion, Chris Ragonese did not dress entirely in black. He wore a white pullover vest and another white garment that reached down to the knees of his black pants. He was applying green eye shadow and eye liner, pointing the paint at the corners of his eyes to give him a slightly Oriental look. Against the light of the sink, he kept checking to see the stubble of his heavy black beard. Somebody had torn out and taped the pages of a magazine to the bathroom wall, but Chris hadn't the time or inclination to look at them. Most of the pictures were Calvin Klein advertisements depicting young men in T-shirts and blue jeans and slicked-back hair. In one picture, a muscular young man sitting on a weight bench was in the process of taking off his shirt. Chris knew the fellow's name: Scott.
He was only half an hour in the bathroom. It probably did not take him as long to apply the makeup as it would have another man, but the result was the same, everything a person should hope to be. He was Chris Ragonese: bright, clean, disciplined, hard-working and gay.
"My eyelashes are so thick," Chris said on his way out into the night, "that I don't ever need to put on mascara."