Between the Lines

A Brand New Day

Richard Burnett
You know things are getting back to normal following September 11 when partisan politics in the United States, Canada and Britain are once again generating sensational headlines. National issues and scandals - the catastrophic Enron bankruptcy, Canadian Alliance leadership race and 17-year-old Prince Harry’s reefer-fueled booze binge - are beginning to push the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the war in Afghanistan off the front pages, or at least below the fold, just when 9-11 gay angles were finally beginning to filter into the consciousness of the mainstream media. Though I must say I’m not necessarily impressed with the new gay stories - namely that Sept 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta was gay (The National Enquirer, Nov 6), and that American-born Taliban follower John Walker’s dad is also gay, that the old man’s homosexuality pushed Walker to embrace the Taliban’s virulently anti-gay message - exposing once again how inbred and deeply-ingrained homophobia remains in the mainstream media.
After all, I have already written in this column how September 11 did not change gay life in one crucial way: we were largely ignored in post-mortems worldwide as the media coverage of grieving wives, husbands, their children, friends and families heterosexualized the victims and heroes of September 11.

But things were beginning to look up. Mark Bingham, for instance, was among the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 who faught the terrorists and crashed their jetliner in a field outside Pittsburgh that fateful day. Books about Flight 93 heroes are now being rushed into production, a Flight 93 movie is already in the works and Bingham himself was even chosen as The Advocate magazine’s Person of the Year (Jan 22).

“Mark has been singled out by the media as the gay hero [and] it’s a distinction that makes many of those who were close to him uneasy“, The Advocate reports. “Not that they were uncomfortable with Mark’s sexual orientation. Most of them don’t hesitate to mention his nickname, Bear Trap. He liked his men big and hairy, they say. It’s just the moniker gay hero says so little about a man who was as varied as the 44 voice messages his mother found on his phone.“

You’re forgiven if, like me, you first thought putting Bingham on the cover and naming him Person of the Year was merely a ploy by the glossy mag to turn someone - anyone - into a gay martyr and ensure a - pardon the pun - sell-out issue. After all, were there not any number of other gays and lesbians living anywhere in the world that made a difference in the lives of many and not just some?

That’s when I realized that I too - like so many of my straight colleagues - was diminishing the contributions of gay people by diminishing the extraordinary life and actions of an ordinary person like Mark Bingham. And Mark, I now believe, deserves to be crowned The Advocate’s Person of the Year.

As The Advocate tribute rhetorically asks in conclusion, “Did Mark Bingham help tackle the terrorists on September 11? Investigators will be combing through the wreckage of Flight 93 and listening to the cockpit voice recorder for months and maybe years to find out. But the people who knew Mark and watched him live his life say they have all the proof they need.“

Contrast that with The San Francisco Examiner columnist P.J. Corkey who reported last December that John Walker’s father, Frank Lindh, left his wife for another man in 1997, traumatizing the teenage Walker. The rest of the mainstream media then jumped on the story without contextualizing Walker’s upbringing.

As gay-rights advocate Michelangelo Signorile opined (Jan 1) in his New York Press alt-weekly column The Gist, “The sexual orientation of John Walker’s parents, like their liberal politics and their tolerant attitude toward child-rearing, did not cause Walker to join the Taliban. If anything, it’s the other way around: The ingrained, religion-based hatred of homosexuality in American society may have caused John Walker to have a visceral reaction upon learning of his father’s supposed involvement with another man (despite even his own parents’ perhaps tolerant views on the subject), and that societal hatred may have been among the contributing factors that led him to embrace a rigid, homophobic religious philosophy and regime.

“Other confused young Americans, many of them even gay themselves and filled with self-hate, have embraced fundamentalist Christianity, often with harmful results,“ Signorile continues. “They have joined bogus, church-run ex-gay ministries as a way to supposedly cure themselves, only to realize after much self-torment - and after they have actively worked against other gays - that it’s all a sham.“

Which brings me to a great quote from Diana Ross, from the pages of London’s Gay Times (December 2001). “I have a great relationship with the gay audience, because I’ve always made it clear that I don’t judge anybody on the grounds of their sexuality,“ Ross says. “People are people, right? You can love a man or a woman, it makes no difference, because love takes you to a special place. That’s what I was raised to believe, and I’m raising my children in the same way. If I ever hear a negative remark about someone gay, I’ll pick them up on it.“
In the wake of September 11, someone should repeat those same words to reporters in newsrooms across America.

One newsroom that has become increasingly gay-positive is that of The Montreal Gazette, where my friend and colleague Mark Lepage wrote his Is Gandalf Gay? op-ed (Jan 5) about the Lord of the Rings character played by out actor Sir Ian McKellen.

McKellen, Mark writes, “is an activist who routinely customizes his hotel-room Bibles by ripping out offending passages from the book of Leviticus (“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be put upon them“ - 20:13). and who promised upon nomination for a 1999 Oscar to turn the Academy Awards into a bully pulpit and stump for gay rights if he won. He lost. Hollywood exhaled.“

Lepage dismisses the growing school of thought that concludes Gandalf is gay just because McKellen is gay. Mark humourously concludes, “If you want to chase down the real troublemakers who loosed all this subtextual confusion on our entertainment culture to begin with - as with many modern evils, we can blame Led Zeppelin. Behind Robert Plant’s Celtic orgasms, the band was schooling an entire generation (of Tolkien readers, mind you) to listen for what was hidden behind the music. Backward masking doomed them all. In the meantime, parents of small children can rest assured that sometimes a seer is just a seer; Gandalf doesn’t sprinkle fairy dust on anyone, McKellen’s sexual identity notwithstanding. This year’s Oscars should be interesting, though.“
Finally, let me say that Ethan Zohn, the winner of Survivor 3 in Africa, can sit on my face. That studmuffin has the most gorgeous hair I’ve even seen. In fact, his curly locks and beard remind me of the Biblical King David.
However it was Survivor contestant, Texas bartender and nelly queen Brandon Quinton who spoke best when he told CBS News (Dec 14), “I watch TV and see 20-something gay people and they’re really promiscuous and they’re really strung out, and that’s not who I am. I just wanted to show people that there’s a whole other side to it. And unwittingly I think the way the producers edited things that maybe I became like every mainstream gay person’s nightmare of being on TV. But I couldn’t help that. I’m just who I am. That’s all I can be.“
You go, girl.

Richard Burnett’s syndicated queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill can be read locally in Hour magazine and The Ottawa X Press, as well as on the web at and (click on the “issues“ link and scroll down to Three Dollar Bill).