Between the Lines

Babylon Burning!

Richard Burnett
A New York friend of mine told me years ago he had it on good authority that New York Mets all-star catcher Mike Piazza is gay. Well, after New York Post gossip columnist Neil Travis reported May 20 that Piazza is gay, the baseball superstar called a press conference before a Mets game in Philadelphia to come out as a - gasp! - straight man. "I'm not gay. I'm heterosexual," Piazza announced. "I can't control what people think. That's obvious. And I can't convince people what to think. I can only say what I know and what the truth is and that's I'm heterosexual and I date women. That's it. End of story."

A lot of American gay journalists praised Piazza for publicly dealing with the situation in a neutral - i.e. read: gay-positive - way. But I didn't feel that way at all. In fact, I thought Piazza over reacted. True, Major League Baseball remains a bastion of heterosexism and, to a certain extent, homophobia. So, yes, I suppose Piazza's TV endorsements could have dried up if he didn't deny he was gay.

But I contrast Piazza's knee-jerk reaction to that of British singer Rod Stewart back in the late 1970s when that famous "stomache pump" gay rumour circulated, claiming Rod the Mod had blown several guys only to be taken to hospital later that same night so medics could pump out ounces of cum Rod had supposedly swallowed.
The rumour started after Rod recorded his 1975 hit The Killing of George Pts 1 & 2 about a gay friend murdered in NYC (the song was also the first Top 40 song ever to have a lead gay character, and was subsequently banned by the BBC). Then, after Do You Think I'm Sexy hit Number One worldwide, the rumours intensified. But I'm convinced Rod became - no pun intended - a lightning rod for rock fans upset with the inexorable rise of disco, which began years earlier as an urban black and gay phenomenon.

"The real animosity between rock and disco lay in the position of the straight white male," cultural critic Peter Braunstein opined in the Village Voice in 1998. "In the rock world, he was the undisputed top, while in disco, he was subject to a radical decentering. Only by killing disco could rock affirm its threatened masculinity."
In other words, disco, mainstream America made very clear, is cocksucker music.

So rumours claimed Rod Stewart was a faggot. Those rumours, of course, were complete bullshit. But unlike Piazza, Stewart - a notorious womanizer - never issued a public denial. Not once. His attitude was, and remains, "Who gives a fuck?"

And remember this was a quarter-century ago!

Next to Stewart, especially all these years later, Piazza comes off as a heterosexist coward.

Had Piazza been living in Jamaica, though, I would completely understand. There, dancehall - the dominant genre of reggae music since "one love" rootsman Bob Marley's death from cancer 21 years ago - often advocates beating up and killing "batty boys".

Jamaica is a notoriously homophobic nation where homophobia is reinforced by just about every Top 10 recording artist in the country.

"The 'great controversy' about Fire Burn lyrics [wherein black nationalists advocate 'burning' white people and all homosexuals] has been growing for several years," American author, journalist and disc jockey Gregory Stephens opines in an outstanding op-ed posted on the website, a long essay called 'The FIYA BURN Controversy: On the Uses of Fire in a Culture of Love and Rebellion.'

"By the summer of 2000 it had achieved a critical mass, as noted in a commentary on the synchronicities between this and other fiery signs of the times on the RootzReggae website. But by the New Year of 2001, the 'official' beginning of the new millennium, the controversy quickly escalated, giving proof that a fuse had been lit that was burning far beyond Jamaican dancehalls."

In Jamaica, some youth have literally taken the 'Fiya Burn' to heart and set fire to Rasta symbols of Babylon - institutions and material things symbolic of the capitalist struggle that has made life a living hell for those who have had the relative misfortune of being born and living in the Third World.

For example, Stephens writes, "On Jan. 2, 2001, a 20-year-old Rasta named Kim John and at least one other accomplice started the new year by entering a cathedral on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia and put the fire burn philosophy in practice. According to a report by Mark Fineman in the Los Angeles Times: 'Clad in flowing robes and armed with clubs, flaming torches and gasoline cans, the attackers charged up the aisle, randomly dousing and torching a dozen parishioners. One attacker set fire to the priest and the altar. Another bludgeoned to death Sister Theresa Egan, an Irish nun who had worked on the island for 42 years, because 'he saw the devil' in her blue eyes.'"

The 'battyman' has been the focal point for more fire burning than any other group or institution. And lately, Stephens notes, "this trend has gotten ugly." He points to dancehall superstar Beenie Man's song Damn which begins, "I'm dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays."

Then there is the "Chi Chi Man" craze of the last year. That song says, "Rat tat tat Chi Chi Man dem hafi get flat/ Mi an my niggas ago mek chi chi man fi dead an dats a fact."

"There are many DJs and listeners who share this virulent homophobia, of course," Stephens writes. "Others are just interested in the vibes of the music, the beats, and don't question the message. Still others may choose to look the other way, even though they disagree. Especially a foreign (as Jamaicans call the world outside their island), many want to prove that they are down. Criticizing burn battyman music would be seen as proof of having gone soft, of having been corrupted by Babylon. In Jamaica, it seems almost impossible to criticize such lyrics within the culture, without facing accusations of being out of touch (such as uptown intellectuals, etc.), or gay. Beenie Man himself went through this a few years ago. Calling for the execution of gays may just be the way that Beenie Man, ever the chameleon, seeks to re-establish credibility, after cutting some tunes (such as Better Learn) that seem critical of the 'burn down the queer' mindset."

The culture, fortunately, is changing "in part because ground zero of dancehall reggae cannot clearly be located in Jamaica anymore. Jamaica has spread out to off-shore communities like Miami, Toronto, London, and New York. And non-Jamaicans, especially Europeans and Americans, play an ever more important role in the production, promotion, distribution, and consumption of the music. The music's audience is changing, and there is an evolution of the consciousness of people within the culture."

What all of this boils down to is if Mike Piazza were playing professional baseball in Jamaica, I'd be the first to call his press conference so he could announce to the world that, dammit, he's straight. But, sweetie, Piazza plays ball for the New York Mets.

NOT giving in to the pressures of fame and fortune - the same pressures Rod Stewart admirably withstood 25 years earlier with his dignity intact - would have been the manly thing to do. But Piazza, it's now clear, just isn't a man's man.

Richard Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill can be read locally in Hour magazine as well as on the web at and (click on the ‘’issues’’ link and scroll down to Three Dollar.