One of the weird things about writing this scene has been writing about Hunter Black as a woman. I’ve been using feminine pronouns when referring to him/her. To be honest, even though this was in no way what was on my mind when I started this scene, it got me thinking about transgender issues. I have a few trans friends, so defaulting to, “Hunter is now a woman,” hasn’t been as hard as one might think…but it has been a transition, for lack of a better word.
My life is FULL of LGBTQ friends and family. There’s probably nothing in this world as homophobic as a teenaged boy in America, and I wasn’t much different. The only question, how much do they mean it…and I didn’t really mean it. I just knew absolutely nothing about actual gay people, didn’t know that I’d met some, and so joined in the dropping of f-bombs and pejorative use of the word “gay.” But in my senior year of high school, we came to suspect that my principal was gay. Now, Robert Deaton Steptoe was the sort of person that makes one think the phrase “a great man.” He had an unbelievable presence, an uncanny ability to know the names of every student in school from day one, and simply commanded the respect of everyone that shared a room with him. He was amazing. We suspected he was gay, because he had certain mannerisms, and that simply didn’t stop us (by which I mean pretty much the entire student body) from practically worshipping him. I didn’t know it, but I was getting over my teenaged homophobia.
My principal was murdered over Christmas break my senior year of high school, and the details eventually came out in the papers. He was beaten to death, apparently not in a hate crime, which might seem to be the direction in which I’m going, but maybe in a lovers’ quarrel. Words like “auto-erotic asphyxiation” were thrown around. This was the late 80s, so the whole thing just felt…sordid. The articles seemed to me to have a hint of…accusation to them, and the accusations were aimed not at his killer, but at my principal.
The articles hit maybe two weeks AFTER he was murdered, after we were all back in school. I’ve always been the big nurturing type, and that was never more true than it was at that time in my life. I was fielding phone calls from students that I’d NEVER spoken to on the phone before, I was consoling people seemingly all day every day. My own mourning felt like something that I had to push to the side in order to take care of my friends and fellow students, like I thought my principal would have done, but that article in the Washington Times set me over the edge. I’d cried with my head in my mother’s lap when I’d first heard the news about my principal, but that was nothing like the major freak out I had in high school that day.
I was a BIG kid. I was 6’4″ and creeping up on 300 pounds even then. When a kid that size has a major freak out, even an “understandable” one, you call his dad. Fortunately, my dad worked just down the street from my high school. He pulled me out of school for a while, and we went for a walk. (My dad was all of 5’9″-5’10” and trim. If I’d been having a violent freak out, there was almost nothing he could have done. I don’t skew towards violence, though, not even in my football days.)
I was a blubbering mess the whole time, but I tried to explain to my dad how WRONG that article was, I mean, how dare they suggest that my principal was gay??? My dad was an extremely progressive guy, but not when it came to matters of homosexuality. He would eventually come to me and suggest that his feelings toward homosexuals were bigotries that he had to learn to overcome…but that admission would come decades later. At that point, my dad routinely used some ugly words to refer to gays, usually trying to be funny. But on this day, he only said to me, “So what? What if it’s true? What if he was gay? What difference does that make? What difference does that make to how you and your friends feel about him?”
That question brought me up short, and even though I’d never been serious about my homophobia, that was the moment that I recognized my own bigotries. Because the answers to my dad’s questions were obvious…it didn’t make any difference at all that he was gay. None at all.
I don’t often think back to this. I’ve probably never attributed my “recovery” from homophobia to my dad, and to the murder of Mr. Steptoe. I’ve always more generally credited it just getting to know gay people. But this was the first time in my life that I was forced to face that someone that I knew and loved was gay, on a day that I can charitably describe as “horrific,” and on what was arguably Reggie Peniston’s finest hour as my dad.