The Observer usually tries to stay out of politics, just because we want to be the go-to column for everybody, regardless of their political persuasion, to read while sitting alone in a coffee shop or pizza place. The Observer sees you there, Dear Reader, reading and smiling. We accept your smiles with silent gladness.
However, when the political football in question is peoples' lives, we must weigh in.
And so we say: You are better than this, Arkansas.
The Observer, as you know if you've read this column for a while, has reported on all kinds: governors and criminals, newborn babes and 105-year-olds, cowards and heroes. But the bravest people we've ever known, bar none, have been our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender neighbors.
It is hard for a straight person, The Observer included, to imagine what it would be like to be born gay — to be shipwrecked here on this space-going clod, where nearly every textbook, novel, film and television show, nearly every blaring screen or billboard or magazine ad, reinforces the idea that "normal" means "heterosexual." Pop culture is getting better about that, of course. We were, for instance, watching "The Walking Dead" the other night, and boom! Gay character, kissing his spouse, protecting him, helping him survive. But we are definitely not there in this Cruel Old World, and we will never get there if we keep taking these giant leaps backward. That is, of course, the point. There are those who live only to spread division and confusion, usually by making a fish wrapper of Holy Scripture. But we, you and I, are better than that.
Straightfolk: Imagine, just for a minute, what it would be like to grow up knowing you were gay or lesbian. Imagine coming up in a household where conformity to Biblical teaching is drilled into you every day. Imagine hearing from your parents and preacher and Sunday School teacher that while God loves even the Romans who scourged Christ, The Almighty is so against the wretched thing you are as to set down a prohibition on your head. Imagine how it would eat at your insides to hear your mother or father say that they hate queers, them fags, those goddamn homos, not knowing that The Enemy stands beside them with their blood and cowlick and quirky smile, that child drinking the poisonous fear and shame of those words every day.
Now, imagine the courage it would take to be yourself under those circumstances — to reveal your true heart, knowing that many of the people you love will cast you out. The Observer has, in our career, met dozens of Arkansans who tell a version of that story — exiled from the ones they love, but exiles in their own skins no more. And that, Dear Friend, is the meaning of courage.
Here is a story for you, Straightfolk of Straightworld: In May 1895, the great writer Oscar Wilde was put on trial in London for the crime of sexual indecency with other men. He was convicted and sentenced to spend two years in prison. When he got out in May 1897, he found that everyone he knew had basically abandoned him. Before long, the great man had been reduced to an impoverished drunk, hanging out in cafes of Paris, hoping not to be recognized.
In Richard Ellmann's biography of Wilde, Ellmann includes details from a letter about a meeting between Wilde and a young college freshman from Arkansas named Armstrong. According to Ellmann's account, Armstrong was sitting in the Cafe de la Regence in Paris when someone behind him asked for a match. He turned, and there was Oscar Wilde. Armstrong bought him a drink. Then a friend came up and passed Armstrong a note saying, "That is Oscar Wilde." At that, Wilde collected his things, said, "I remove the embarrassment," then disappeared into the crowd.
A few days later, Armstrong was painting the Seine at the Pont de la Tournelle when Wilde happened along and recognized him from their previous meeting. Drawing on his great intellect and wit, Wilde began discussing the finer points of painting — why it is so difficult to paint water, and canvases on display in nearby museums. Eventually, Wilde asked where Armstrong was from. Learning he was from Arkansas, Wilde asked if there were springs there. "Yes," Armstrong said. "Hot springs."
At that, Wilde looked into the distance and said: "I would like to flee like a wounded hart into Arkansas."
He stood there in silence for a while, then told Armstrong: "Thank you for listening. I am much alone." Then he walked away. Wilde died in Paris on Nov. 30, 1900, at the age of 46.
"I would like to flee like a wounded hart into Arkansas."
It would be easy to see that as the statement of a broken man, but it's really not. It's Wilde dreaming of a place where he could truly be himself. Free from judgment. Free from discrimination. Free from the forces that had conspired to crush his spirit because he dared to live as himself. For him, Arkansas — a vast, green wilderness beyond the sea — was that place.
And so it should be again.
It doesn't have to be this way, Arkansas. You are better than this.