Brokeback Mountain, Tookie Williams & Me
Iwo Jima - Statues
"Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?" Ernest Gaines
The controversial movie Brokeback Mountain and the controversy surrounding Tookie Williams have something in common. Both reflect universal polarizing issues. Homosexuality, the death penalty, people outside the mainstream, the consequences of misunderstood and misguided lives and the Big One -- redemption.
Together they create an eerie connection for me. Why? Because in 1975 my wonderful friend Ron was brutally murdered by a gang -- because he was gay.
And the real irony is he wasn't gay. He was more a hedonist, a seeker of pleasure from any source. He was also married and the father of two. No saint, he had a roving eye -- for the ladies. And, it turned out, for men too. Mostly he was a product of his generation, at war with conformity and his Catholic upbringing, savoring success and the good life in his unique, inimitable way.
Then a senseless, despicable hate crime snuffed out his life at the age of 30. A bright, committed, hardworking political operative. A funny, sweet, loyal friend. A loving, devoted husband and father (yes, really), taken by rage and bigotry.
We met in 1968 while I was still at Penn. It was Ron who helped me set my course and lose my political virginity while he protected me at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
We worked together in Philly, throughout Pennsylvania, in Washington and around the country for the next seven years, along with a cadre of other young, idealistic Boomers who had chosen government service as a way to change the world.
We played together too. Some of the time. Clearly there were areas of his life hidden from me and the rest of his full-time hetero friends.
Like the West of the 1960s, politics in the 1970s was all about hiding, even denying, any form of homosexuality. Gays and bisexuals, many deeply conflicted about their sexual preferences were driven deeper into the shadows in order to achieve success in the straight world.
So a secret subculture existed in state capitols and the nation's capitol where gays shared their sense of alienation, frustration and anger. The little I knew of that world seemed filled with self-loathing, desperation and pain. Even in my callow 20's I thought it was wrong -- not that they were gay, but that they were forced to hide.
Because then as now, prejudice, hatred and violence were the weapons others used to confront a lifestyle that confused, offended and clouded their mainstream judgment.
Which adds more irony to the location of Ron's murder: in the shadow of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, DC. That symbol of America at its best was a clandestine meeting place for gays. And horribly, became a hunting ground for those who decried their lifestyle.
All these years later, I still remember witness descriptions of Ron screaming in agony as three men beat him to a pulp while he begged them to stop, pleading for help that came too late. A friend called upon to identify the body had to do so from Ron's engraved wedding and college rings -- Ron's face was so destroyed it was unrecognizable.
The men who did it were caught. The media was filled with stories of the crime, the perpetrators, the victim and his family. Ron's parents lost their son and their middle class innocence. His wife was deprived not only of her husband, but also her privacy, and her dignity. Their children were robbed of a father and served up a scandal as his legacy.
I ask myself, did all who knew and loved Ron wish the death penalty for his killers? At first, we were too stunned to think about anything but his family's and our own grief. But eventually most of us wanted more than justice, we wanted vengeance.
It's easy to debate the death penalty with rational arguments from a safe theoretical distance. But to view it in the face of brutal reality, to want an eye for an eye for loved ones cut down? A whole other ball game.
As far as I know, Ron's killers are still in prison. They weren't put to death -- I would remember that. What I do remember is that they weren't at all repentant about their horrendous deed. So in my mind, even 30 years later, they don't deserve redemption.
Should Tookie Williams have been let off the hook? I don't know. What I do know is that hindsight is a luxury granted the living. It's meaningless to the dead. A thousand good works by their killers won't bring them back. Here's a worse dilemma for me: I can't even remember Ron's position on the death penalty.
In the end it doesn't matter. I will always remember Ron. They stole his life because of their sick perception of his lifestyle. They didn't know about the beauty of his spirit. And they can never steal that from those of us who did.