|Not Ralph in underwear|
I've heard lots of homophobic statements over the years, ranging from the ignorant (mostly from "friends"):
"Are you the boy or girl in your relationship?"
"What do they think causes it now?"
"If you've never been with a woman, how do you know you like men better?"
To the raving (mostly from preachers).
"The homa-sekshul would just as soon kill you as look at you."
"No nation that has tolerated homa-sekshuls has ever survived!"
"Homa-sekshuls are possessed by the Spirit of Evil!"
But the most homophobic statement I ever heard consisted of five little words:
"Oh, you mean that place."
Mr. Manary was a young, hip teacher at Rocky High, who insisted that students call him by his first name, Ralph. I never actually saw him in his underwear, but close scrutiny during lectures suggested that he looked like this: tall, thin, clean-cut, tight-muscled, and bulging.
During my sophomore year, I had Ralph for American History. He wrote a book on the Quad Cities, so he had us investigate Rock Island during the 1920s, and learn about gangster John Looney and jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke.
When we got to the 1950s, we read some writers of the Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg's "Supermarket in California", and we watched the classic anti-Communist allegory I Married a Monster from Outer Space.
Have you ever heard of anyone so cool?
During my junior year, I had him for political science. We took a field trip to the courthouse to see a real criminal trial, about a shooting that took place in the Hawaiian Lounge, Rock Island's gay bar. One of the witnesses, the "swish on the double date", helped me figure out what gay meant.
Ralph was the first person to encourage me to think about college. He even got the head of the history department at his alma mater, St. Olaf College, to invite me to apply.
During my senior year, I had him for AP American History. Sometimes he held study sessions at his house, and his wife made cookies.
We had to parse Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, about the oppression of the Native Americans.
Fast forward 20 years, to January 2002: I was living in Florida but back in Rock Island for the holidays. I contacted Ralph, the local history expert.
We talked about Rock Island history: scandals and floods and riots. Local celebrities. Iconic businesses.
Then: "What can you tell me about the Hawaiian Lounge? It was a Rock Island institution, and then suddenly it was gone, and JR's took its place. Do you know how and when it closed?"
His eyes flashed. "What lounge, now?"
"You know, the Hawaiian Lounge. Our poly sci class sat in on a trial about a shooting that took place there."
"Can't say I remember it."
I didn't notice his attempts to not know. He was a liberal, sensitive to minority struggles, and just plain cool, so why wouldn't he be gay-friendly?
"It was just a few blocks from here, on 4th Avenue. You had to drive past it to get downtown...." I stopped short and stared. His face was contorted into a mask of disgust.
"Oh, you mean that place."
He emphasized the word that: alien, other, stranger, savage. Something wicked. Something awful. That place.
I quickly made an excuse and left, and drove aimlessly around in my sister-in-law's car for a long time. I have rarely felt so depressed.
One of my childhood heroes hated me.