THE RUMOR was that he had been seen cruising. No one seemed to know anyone who had seen him doing that, but everyone believed it and he himself seemed to indicate that he knew of the rumor. He would say something that left you wondering, give you a quick painful squeeze on the back of the neck and then send you on your way with a terrible growl. He was teacher, his name was Phil and the rumors said he was a homosexual.
He taught history. He was never my teacher, but he was the grade adviser for our class and so we all met him early in our freshman year at high school. He was a tall man with a shock of reddish hair, 50 years old or so, effeminate in his actions, loud and exaggerated in his movements, quick to anger, quick to forgive, a stalker of the bathrooms in search of secret smokers, the guy you faced when trouble came, the one who knew you better than anyone else in the school. He was, as I said, rumored to be gay.
I bring this up now because there is this great promotion in California about homosexual teachers. There is a proposition on the ballot there - Proposition 6 - that would require the firing of teachers who admit being homosexual or who promote homosexuality as a life style. The proposition is worded so artlessly that it is a constitutional atrocity, nothing more, really, than an attempt by an opportunist state senator named John Briggs to make a name for himself. All you really need to know about Briggs is that not even Anita Bryant will campaign for him, and that both Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown think he's wrong.
In a sense, Prop 6 is easy. In the first place, it affects heterosexual teachers as well as homosexual one since it would forbid anyone from promoting homosexuality as a life style. Mr. Briggs himself has said that this particular part of his creation would apply - brace yourself - to Midge Constanza, the former presidential aide who is opposing the adoption of Proposition 6. In other words, to oppose the persecution of homosexuals, to insist they have the same rights at heterosexuals, is tantamount to promoting homosexuality. We have that on the authority of Briggs himself.
But the polls taken for the opponents of Proposition 6 indicate that as of now the issue is a say as well. When you ask Californians why thjey are opposed to Proposition 6 about one-third say either that the law is not needed or that it would take too much money to enforce. Many of them say very little about civil liberties, about the rights of homosexuals, and probably the best you can say for these findings is that they show fear of homosexuals to be less of a concern to Californians than high taxes. Taken together, the fact that the proposition will apply to heterosexuals, that it is an unnecessary law and that, if passed, it might be expensive to administer, may be enough to doom it as the polls.
But all these reasons beg the questions; they avoid the confrontation with the issue of homosexuals as teachers. What the pollsters have also found out is that this is an important issue, that people who could not care one way or another about gay rights issues, feel strongly about this one - about the notion of homosexuals as role models.
Now we come back to te teacher named Phil. We all had someone like him, someone who either was perceived to be gay or was gay, a distinction that hardly matters when it comes to being a role model. The important thing with Phil is that we thought he was, and we were 13, 14 and 15-year-old boys. We were the ones everyone is now so concerned about. Why is it that we think our children cannot possibly handle what was not even a problem for us? The answer has probably nothing to do with homosexuality per se but with the feeling parents have nowadays that they have little control over the lives of their children. This is an attempt at least to narrow some of the options, the feeling being that homosexuals that are out of sight are also out of mind - what Johnny can't see, he won't be.
Maybe. But there is in that thought the notion that one homosexual is worth a thousand heterosexuals, that some homosexual teacher - avowed, perceived or otherwise - can somehow change the course of the young person's life - that there is something so compelling about homosexuality htat it is like the cross before the vampire, or kryptonite before Superman. In Star Wars terminology, you would have to call it The Force.
It's nothing like that, of course, and it owes its mystique, really, to people like Briggs who talk about it as if it were not a form of human behavior, but the work of the devil himself (herself?) - people who don't understand that the way to deal with homosexuality is honestly and frankly, to take it out of the closet and get a look at it. Really, what we're talking about is only people.
My old grade adviser Phil was probably one of them - we all thought so anyway. Phil died a couple of years back, a stroke, I was told. I was surprised, thinking somehow that the years hadn't passed for him, thinking maybe he had frozen in time, always big always loud and always, when you got into trouble and were scared, warm and understanding and compassionate - a terrific grade adviser. He might have been a homosexual, there's no way to tell now, but there was one thing I'll tell you he was for sure.
He was great teacher, Mr. Briggs, a great teacher.