Teele and HomophobiaMay 11, 2006
May 1, 2006
As the shock from Art Teele’s dramatic suicide begins to fade and details of his final thoughts emerge, an entire community is compelled to confront and come to terms with some uncomfortable realities. Some issues are already in the throws of heated debate, however, there is one issue which looms large, but speaks quietly, as if still hiding in the closet: Homophobia.
While a number of factors contributed to Teele’s decision to take his own life, it is most disconcerting that his final conversation with popular columnist Jim Defede focused on being “deeply upset” at allegations of a sexual tryst with another man and how those allegations leveled a “devastating impact” on his college bound son. Art Teele was literally embarrassed to death, not by what he did, but by what he imagined his supporters would think about him, given their attitudes towards homosexuality.
While the feet of the sensationalist media and malicious prosecution are rightfully held to the fire for the extent to which their misdeeds contributed to Teele’s fatal decision, any honest analysis will demonstrate this equation has at least two parts. The first, and obvious, part is the media and police focus on Teele’s personal life.
The second part of the equation is less obvious, but no less important: the real and perceived reaction of the public, including- no, especially- the reaction of his friends, to allegations he was with another man. Teele was embarrassed because he feared so much of the public, including his supporters, were condemning and spiteful towards people identified as or accused of being gay.
Teele feared that those who supported him through the years, in good times and in bad, would somehow look at him differently if they thought those stories true. While the media is to blame for making private matters public, many of his own supporters are to blame for making him feel he would be abandoned in the face of those allegations.
Accusations of infidelity with women were plentiful, but they failed to elicit either humiliation from Teele or outrage from his supporters, even among the clergy. God found the crime of adultery so fundamental, that it was granted special status as part of the Ten Commandments. Yet, this capital transgression is apparently more easily forgiven by mankind than homosexuality, a religious misdemeanor, as it were. It seems that if the crime is cheating on one’s spouse, the rundown of who, when and how are mere details. However, in the inverse logic of homophobia, the cheating itself is a mere detail, trumped by the more sensational prospect of the gender of the cheatee.
Teele’s fears and suspicions did not developed in a vacuum, but as he engaged in conversations, overheard small talk, listened to opinions and was preached to from the pulpit. His fear of the power of homophobia was informed by the attitudes he witnessed.
Make no mistake about it, when you make homophobic remarks or jokes, you directly contribute to the atmosphere which produced the sense of shame engulfing Teele. As you made those remarks, someone, maybe even the one joking with you, was made to feel they would rather be dead than to have you think they were gay. While it is easy, and correct, to blame the media for their part, the fact is that you too contributed to the “devastating impact” often associated with being outted, and deserve your very own piece of the blame.
The stigma attached to homosexuality is a completely social invention. The great works of any official is in no way compromised simply because he has relationships with other men. Conversely, the failures of those officials are neither magnified nor attributable to their sexual preferences.
It is devastating to ponder the sense of shame and isolation which consumes countless other people- human beings with feelings, sensitivities and frailties, and the role we each play in fostering that shame and building that isolation. Potential is limited, dreams are halted and lives are cut short because of the shame we collectively build.
Regardless of the veracity of the allegations- and, for the record, most of us could care less- the notion that someone could even consider taking his own life in part because others thought he was gay speaks very poorly of this society and offers an unsettling glimpse into the psyche of many people living closeted lives, in fear of their own personal expose.
The connection between homophobia and Art Teele’s suicide is real and we are forced to either deal with this uncomfortable subject now or watch as it plays out again later.