Growing up in a family of four sons, I had my closest, most intense, and most complicated relationship with my brother Bruce, who is two and a half years older than me.
Closer in age to each other than any other pairing of my brothers, Bruce and I had more opportunity to spend time together, at different stages of our youth, than I had with my other two brothers, one six years older than me, the other eight years younger. We shared glimpses, from time to time, of a strong bond, but more often we engaged in a bitter and volatile sibling rivalry.
It was not uncommon for him to hurl homophobic barbs my way—pansy and fem are the two I best remember—in the midst of our mutual outbursts of anger.
That may sound like a fairly unpromising backdrop to my decision in my early 20s to confide in Bruce first among my family members about the fact that I was gay. The two of us were visiting my parents, out on the patio drinking beers, feeling a measure of closeness, and I honestly believed my being gay was something he always instinctively knew about.
But when I told him, he was dumbstruck, and the best he could manage by way of response was a skeptical request for clarification: “Have you done anything about it?”
Stunned, in turn, that I was essentially being asked if I were a virgin, I put the issue to Bruce directly: “You always called me a fag. Why is this such a big surprise to you?”
I will never forget his answer.
“I never meant those things. They were just the worst things I could think to call you.”
In other words, it was just politics.
I long ago gave up the hope that my brother Bruce was going to be a good sounding board for my life as a gay man, and that’s fine. Several weeks ago, after a long hiatus in our seeing each other or even speaking, we were together at a family gathering in Westchester, to which he had traveled from Pittsburgh.
We are both political junkies, even if now of a very different stripe, but it was still surprising that within a minute or two of greeting each other, Bruce brought up the junior senator from his current home state.
“You can’t let Rick Santorum bother you,” he admonished, indicating that he had been keeping track specifically of this newspaper’s coverage of the Republican’s leader’s outrageous antics about gay people and our sexuality. “That’s all just politics for him.”
Recalling Santorum’s initial Senate victory over Democratic incumbent Harris Wofford in 1994, Bruce argued, “Everyone always says how Santorum won as a conservative in 1994. He didn’t win as a conservative. He won as a Republican.”
Bruce has become a dyed in the wool Republican. But his insistence that Santorum is a radical-right aficionado only in the service of his political ambitions mirrors a pervasive attitude among Americans that when the Republicans play footsie with our worst opponents, they don’t really mean it.
How many stories have there been in the mainstream press about George W. Bush’s diffidence about the Federal Marriage Amendment, how he only moved gradually toward an explicit embrace of the effort, and how even now after the U.S. Senate spent part of four consecutive days debating the proposal before finally setting it aside, the president’s heart really isn’t in it?
Our community won an important victory this week, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that our opponents, including Sen. Santorum and the president of the United States, don’t mean business. For today, we prevailed and that is wonderful, but the cost has been an enormous diversion of effort and resources by our community away from constructive forward momentum.
Between now and November, we need to remind everyone in our lives that hate is not just politics and that we will not play that game.
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