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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

Dirty Knees

I enjoy getting reader feedback, especially when the reader has compliments and agrees with something I wrote. I also enjoy hearing from folks who disagree although it's always better when they do it politely. Sometimes, however, I get mail that is hard to classify. An example is a letter I received from someone whom I am assuming is an elderly lady residing in Friday Harbor, Washington. This reader was writing in response to my column, "From the Mouth of Babes," which was recently published in the Unitarian Universalist Association's monthly "World" magazine.

The column deals with my experience last spring when attending a high school choir banquet with my wife and son. A teen-age girl at the next table started loudly speculating about the sexuality of several of the student honorees, which caused me to respond by quietly getting in her face and telling her, in so many polite words, "Oh, shut up!"

The incident caused my Washington reader to reminisce about a similar experience: "In about 1938, when I was around 11, I had an experience a lot like the one you described in 'UU World.' I attended a dance recital at my local school with two friends. The audience was large. I noted that one of the little dancers --- younger than myself --- had what looked like mud on her knees. I mentioned it to my friends and we all chuckled. About two more times she was back out on the stage and each time I said, 'There is "Dirty Knees" again.' As we left the recital, a woman about 45 started shouting across the playground at me in a very harsh tone of voice. I recall she said, 'You had no right to talk that way --- they worked hard to prepare for this' and a lot more I no longer recall. I was usually a shy, quiet child --- I had never been spoken to so harshly before. I felt so ashamed and burst into tears.

"The woman was taken aback and said, 'I didn't mean to make her cry.' My friends did not look at her and walked away. The man with her looked uncomfortable. I assume he later told her she went a little too far. She was the more mature person but was acting a lot like me. "She spoiled more than an evening for me." I puzzled over this letter for some time and still have not figured out exactly what the lady was trying to say. My first reaction was to wonder if she is comparing me to the lady "who went too far." My own thought was that lady did what some teacher or my letter-writer's parent should have done, i.e., correcting a mouthy youngster for trying to embarrass the young performer with the dirty knees. If that's the case, then my reader apparently didn't learn her lesson. She is still seeing herself as the one offended.

My next thought is that maybe there was a warning for me --- was my action in reprimanding the teen-age homophobe similar to the woman "who went too far?" Perhaps it was. But frankly, it's time to stop the teasing and psychological warfare that goes on in our schools. Too much of the time kids are allowed to poke fun at others who are different, whether they have dirty knees, torn clothes, different skin colors, ethnic or religious backgrounds or because they are suspected or admit to having a minority sexual orientation. "She's got dirty knees" back in 1938 can very easily be delivered in the same casual, but equally hurtful, tone, as "He's a fag" in 2000.

Finally, I realized that I was saddened at a lesson not learned. More than 60 years after the incident happened, the lady who wrote to me obviously was still hurting over the incident and still viewing herself as the victim. That realization did hit home --- what if the homophobic girl I reprimanded got over her embarrassment and just put it down to me being some strange man who "went too far" and ruined her otherwise lovely evening of making fun of other people. What if my message didn't get through and she attends next year's music banquet armed with a new list of sexist epithets for those who receive their awards?

What a bummer.

Published 19th October 2000


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