At a fancy inaugural party this January, I found myself being called a "bigot" and a "homophobe" by Rep. Barney Frank. I had gone over to him to say hello, recalling how the two of us sparred a few years ago when I testified before his House subcommittee, which was examining racial and gender preferences. Eschewing cocktail party pleasantries -- not to mention the "bipartisan" good feelings that saturated the room -- he began pelting me with unflattering epithets.
Frank, who publicly identifies himself as gay, was angered by recent news accounts that had dredged up events from my college newspaper days. As editor of the conservative Dartmouth Review in the mid-1980s, I had ignited a major campus controversy when I sent an undercover reporter into a publicly advertised meeting of the Gay Students Association and then printed a transcript of the meeting (but only the names of student officers who had already publicly identified themselves as gay).
Part of what we did was journalistically justifiable: The group received college funding but, unlike every other student group receiving a college grant, refused to make public its membership or budget. We wanted to find out how student funds were being spent and to demonstrate the double standard Dartmouth had created by funding the group. But in doing so, we adopted a purposefully outrageous tone -- occasionally using, for example, the word "sodomites" to describe campus gays.
I tried to explain the context of the Dartmouth Review to Frank, and asked him whether he judged other acquaintances on their deeds and misdeeds during college. He didn't answer. And when I tried to tell him that just two weeks earlier, I had been in San Francisco helping my gay brother cope as his partner fought bravely to stave off death from AIDS, he brushed me off. The disconnect between my public persona (the caricature of conservatives as unwaveringly intolerant toward gays) and my personal life (my relationship with my brother) hit me like a right hook.
I understood Frank's anger, but I also knew his understanding of me was incomplete: Yes, I am conservative. Yes, I take a strict view of constitutional law, and I do not believe the U.S. Constitution speaks to the complicated social question of gay rights. (But the Constitution leaves states free to adopt social policies favoring gay marriage or protections for homosexuals if their majority so chooses.) I also reject the idea that disagreement with the gay movement's political agenda is de facto evidence of homophobia, any more than opposition to affirmative action makes one a racist.
But at the same time, in the 10 years since I learned my brother Curtis was gay, my views and rhetoric about homosexuality have been tempered -- not because Curtis proselytizes on gay rights, but because I have seen him and his companion, Richard, lead their lives with dignity, fidelity and courage. By refusing to give in to bitterness or defeat in the face of a relentless disease, they have shown me what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote that our ideology and faith must leave room for tolerance and empathy. I now regret that at Dartmouth we didn't consider how callous rhetoric can wound -- how someone like Barney Frank must have felt -- not to mention how it undermined our political point.
When Curtis, at age 29, told me he was gay, I was just out of college and working as a speechwriter in the Reagan administration. I had thought about homosexuals only as part of an organized political force on the other side, and while I knew a professor who was gay, I didn't have any gay friends. My first thought was to wonder whether Curtis was embarrassed -- not about being gay, but about me, my politics and my past. At the time of the controversy, his only reaction was to remind me not to let the hullabaloo at the newspaper overtake my studies. Once I knew he was gay, I braced for the "Dartmouth Review conversation." Even his silence felt like a form of admonishment.
But Curtis never reproached me about my Dartmouth Review antics, and we actually became better friends after I learned he was gay. He was more at ease after lifting the veil of secrecy from his life, and I was glad to know that, despite my in-your-face political/journalistic agenda during college, he trusted me enough to confide in me.
Friends frequently ask how I, given my politics, dealt with seeing my brother and his companion, Richard, together for the first time. They are surprised when I tell them it wasn't as unsettling as I had anticipated. Richard was smart, funny, kind and clearly devoted to Curtis. They just clicked. I met their gay friends, and liked them. (They, in turn, seemed taken aback that a conservative firebrand like me could be fun -- especially at a party with a bunch of gay people.)
Richard turned 43 last month, and I flew out to San Francisco to spend some time with him and my brother. I had seen a fair number of men in their forties approach birthdays with dread, but not Richard. He greeted the anniversary as if it were the prize truck from Publishers Clearing House.
Having tested HIV-positive nine years ago, Richard is in the advanced stages of AIDS. Despite several eye operations to repair the damage caused by an AIDS-related virus called CMV, he is now almost blind. Another related virus has attacked the nerves in his legs, so he needs help to walk, and even then he can take only a few steps at a time. An ear infection has left him partially deaf. His facial muscles on one side are paralyzed.
I hadn't seen Richard since he lost his eyesight. Despite that and his other infirmities, he was upbeat and inquisitive. "Tell us what's going on with Newt," he chirped shortly after I arrived, anxious to tweak me about the delicious irony of the Gingrich ethics controversy. But by the next day, Richard had deteriorated badly. He was not lucid and could not stand on his own. When we finally got him to the hospital, the doctors found that he had bacterial meningitis and an infection near his brain. There would be yet another operation. By the time they moved Richard into intensive care, his family and friends had arrived to say goodbye.
To the amazement of the ICU doctors and nurses, he regained consciousness. "I'm a bad host, aren't I?" he asked, when I squeezed his hand after he was moved out of ICU. I told him he was pretty tough for a self-proclaimed bleeding-heart liberal. He mustered a grin. I felt a million miles away from the political typecasting of Washington.
Before I had seen for myself how AIDS ravaged Richard's vibrant mind and body, I had thought it was just like any other disease. To me, the incessant calls for more federal funding for AIDS research were just part of a gay crusade for political affirmation and acceptance. Now I see that the push for experimental drug treatments and increased funding for AIDS research is motivated by love and fear, driven by those who have watched the virus attack viciously and indiscriminately. Watching AIDS play its evil game of give and take has made me understand why lobbying for increased research funding should be an urgent priority not only for the gay community, but for us all.
I've changed in other ways as well. Until a few years ago, I hadn't thought about the gay community as setting an example in self-help -- the virtue lauded and encouraged by conservatives such as Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp. I wasn't aware, for example, of local social service organizations such as San Francisco's Open Hands, a volunteer group that gives counseling and support to AIDS patients and their caretakers. Where 10 years ago my reaction to the idea of gay marriage was a reflexive, "You've got to be kidding me," I am now less dismissive. Without a legal marriage, Curtis and Richard not only miss out on tax advantages and employer health and pension benefits (outside of San Francisco), there is undeniable emotional strain as well. "I'm his caretaker," Curtis told the emergency room nurse as we registered Richard in the hospital. Although I understood the word had become part of the AIDS lexicon by necessity, knowing what they had been through together made it sound antiseptic, almost an insult.
Curtis finally brought Richard home a few weeks ago and began the arduous task of arranging for home health care. For a few days, Richard ate food prepared in his own kitchen, bathed in his own tub and once again felt his cat curled up in his lap.
Now he is back in the hospital, this time with stomach bleeding and short-term memory loss. When I called last week, he apologized for not sending a valentine. Laura Ingraham is a political analyst for CBS News and MSNBC.