I’m mostly hating this decade, but recently I’ve reflected on ways life has improved, and this helps blunt the despair.
For example, as today we witness a massive change in attitudes toward gays and lesbians and same-sex marriage, there is plenty of shrill and irrational counter rhetoric. But I recall a time in America when no such debate could even begin because the words themselves were forbidden.
There was rebellion against change.
In every age there’s rebellion against whatever you’ve got. Ginsberg’s “Howl” explicitly referred to homosexuality in 1955, and the courts even let the poem be sold in stores two years later. But nowhere in America was it a subject of open, mainstream civic debate.
Even during the Summer of Love, 1967, the mainstream news only had it that hippies, good heavens, were flocking to San Francisco.
I have a treasured memory of that era, which I’d like to share. This happened in the spring of my junior year of high school, here in space age Seattle, 1966, in a coed health education class.
Our teacher was a 6-foot-6-inch school football coach who was built like an icebox and who could crush your skull with one hand. Mr. Icebox. Yeah, that’s it. Randy Icebox.
Health Ed, to start with, was all about how to be physically healthy. We began with nutritional health, so we learned to eat leafy green vegetables.
We learned to wash hands often.
We learned not to have sex at all because we could get gonorrhea or syphilis or crabs (pictured in the book). Or, if we were bad, always wear protection. Some boy (believe it or not, it wasn’t me) spouted, “What do you mean, ‘protection,’ Mr. Icebox?”
“You know exactly what it means.”
“Ha, ha, you mean rubbers, Mr. Icebox?”
“Shut up, there are girls here.”
At one point Mr. Icebox tried to tell us that it was unhealthy for boys to have long hair like those dirty Beatles, because boys don’t wash their hair often enough. When I objected, “What if the boy was the exceptional boy who did wash his hair often enough?” Icebox came back with, “That’d be a sissy boy.”
From then on the class was less about physical health than about being indoctrinated in the mainstream attitudes about homosexuality, all without mentioning homosexuality explicitly. Part of what needed to conveyed was precisely that it should not and could not be spoken of.
My prized memory concerns an incident that occurred as our class came to find ourselves faced with two contrasting pictures on one page in the textbook.
One showed two teenage boys in an ice cream shop sitting side-by-side across from two girls, photographed in unflattering black and white with harsh lighting. It had a red “x” over it. The other had the same kids, but they formed two boy-girl couples facing each other, photographed in cheery color, with a caption that said these teenagers were socializing in a healthy way.
I couldn’t take it, and I spent about 10 minutes of my health education class trying to get Mr. Icebox to say the h-word. I asked, “What’s the red ‘x’ for? Guys can’t be friends?” He would not say it. I demanded to know what was unhealthy in the first picture. “We were told in grade school girls had cooties. Now you’re saying boys spread cooties among themselves? Just by sitting next to each other?”
As this went on, Mr. Icebox’s eyes bulged out of his sockets, and the vein in his forehead stood out and throbbed. He said I was being deliberately obtuse, and I knew perfectly well why the first picture showed unhealthy behavior. Finally I just said, “Why can’t you just come out and say that you don’t want us to be homosexuals?” He turned as red as a lobster and made me shut up for the rest of the period.
You see so little of that now. There’s something to be happy about.