Breakfast Epiphanies: Encounters With Notorious Homophobes
Last February 8th, I visited Salon’s website and discovered that the lead story was about a woman named Maggie Gallagher, whom the article described as “a right-wing traditional marriage zealot” and “gay marriage’s top foe.” The feature was written by Mark Oppenheimer and it was not a flattering portrait of its subject. Gallagher, whose first child was born out of wedlock and whose marriage to fellow conservative Raman Srivastav is apparently not an outstanding example of traditional marriage, comes across in Oppenheimer’s article not only as an arch homophobe but also as a hypocrite and a scold. When I began reading the article I thought to myself, “Surely this can’t be the same Maggie Gallagher whose family lived across the street from mine when we were both little Catholic school students.”
But I was wrong. The Maggie Gallagher in Oppenheimer’s article and the Maggie I grew up with turned out to be one of the same.
In 1967, when I was nine, my family moved into a nice home in an upper-middle class neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. The block I lived on looked as though it might have been just around the corner from the Cleaver household on Leave It To Beaver or the Anderson household from Father Knows Best. Across the street from us, and one house to the right, lived the Gallaghers, another moderately large Catholic family like mine. Maggie’s brother Billy soon became one of my best friends. Billy was a year younger than I, so we didn’t spend much time together at school. But after school we were best pals. We were both chess fanatics. We would often play a dozen games of chess against each other in the hours between our arrival home from school and the arrival of dinner time. Billy’s little sister, Maggie, younger than me by about two years, was a beautiful, bright-eyed little girl and a jewel of the neighborhood, one of those smart, articulate children that even the most curmudgeonly of adults cannot help but like. All of the Gallagher children were strikingly attractive. Mr. and Mrs. Gallagher were only a few years younger than my own parents, but they seemed to come from an entirely different generation. They looked like movie stars and were way cooler than most parents of the era. They seemed out of place in our staid neighborhood, which, even in the 1970s, preserved a more traditional 1950s vibe. I think their neighbors all secretly knew that the Gallaghers were too glamorous to thrive in a neighborhood as dull and conventional as ours. And, sure enough, sometime around 1970, the Gallaghers moved to a much grander (and cooler) house in an upscale suburb of Portland called Lake Oswego.
Even after his family moved away, Billy and I remained friends. Every other month or so, my parents would drop me off in Lake Oswego (the town, not the body of water) and I would spend the weekend with the Gallaghers, engaging in marathon chess battles. But now, in addition to chess, Billy and I found ourselves enjoying another outlet for our youthful energies. The Gallagher house was located right on the banks of Lake Oswego. We kids could open up the sliding glass doors at the back of the house, run down a vast stretch of beautifully manicured grass, and hop right into the Lake. My 54-year-old brain may be embellishing the grandness of the Gallagher estate, but if memory serves me correctly, the property included a boathouse and a pier that jutted out into the lake. I also seem to recall an island, just a hundred yards or so offshore, that we could swim to and play upon, but perhaps I am conflating my childhood excursions to Billy’s house with the books of Arthur Ransome. At any rate, my trips to the Gallagher house often included a lot of water-related activities in addition to the more sedentary and cerebral chess battles that Billy and I engaged in. If I’m not mistaken, it was the Gallaghers who took me waterskiing for the first time.
After the move to Lake Oswego, Billy’s parents continued to welcome me, a stuffy little Catholic throwback to the 1950s, warmly into their home, even though, by this time, they were “drifting away from the church,” according to Oppenheimer and embracing a more unconventional worldview. Though they were fairly wealthy and middle-aged, Mr. and Mrs. Gallagher somehow seemed to channel some of the rebellious spirit that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s. And Maggie, like all the Gallagher children, seemed to grow more beautiful and brilliant every time I saw her.
Alas my friendship with Billy didn’t survive the end of grade school. I don’t recall that our friendship suffered a slow lingering death. We both went off to high school and after that we largely forgot about each other. I have not played a single game of chess since the end of my friendship with Billy. I competed once, in the early 1970s, at the state chess tournament held at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, but I believe that tournament marked the only time I ever played chess against an opponent other than Billy Gallagher. In my mind, chess and Billy are inextricably entwined. And the smiling, friendly face of Billy’s beautiful younger sister Maggie is also an indelible part of my childhood memories. And so it was somewhat of a shock and a disappointment to me when I came across Mark Oppenheimer’s portrait of Maggie as a middle-aged scold obsessed with denying basic human rights to an oppressed minority group. In my boyish imagination, the Gallaghers always represented a sort of forward-looking liberalism that contrasted sharply with the stodgy conservatism I grew up in.
After high school, I moved to California, got married, and began trying to make a living with my pen (or word processor). Once or twice my parents sent me articles about Billy that appeared in the Oregonian or some other newspaper. Like his father, Billy went into finance. After college, he moved to Japan and became a specialist in Asian investments. After reading the Salon profile of his sister, I Googled Billy and discovered that he is a partner in Akamatsu, a Japanese hedge fund that requires a minimum investment of $250,000. My lifetime earnings don’t add up to much more than that. Clearly Billy (now merely Bill) and I have taken drastically different paths through life. He is a successful hedge-fund manager and I am a failed writer. In the chess game of life, Billy is at least a bishop or a rook, and I am still a mere pawn. And Maggie, apparently, has become the dark queen of an army bent on destroying many of the things I hold dear in life: tolerance, diversity, love, and gay marriage.
I last saw Maggie in 1972. That September I entered high school and lost track of the entire Gallagher clan. Seventeen years later, however, I made the acquaintance of another notorious homophobe and prominent member of the National Organization for Marriage. In the summer of 1989, I attended the Clarion West Speculative Fiction Writers Workshop in Seattle. One of my teachers there was Orson Scott Card. The conference lasted for six weeks, and each week was presided over by a different teacher. In addition to Card, the line-up for 1989 included the writers Connie Willis, Karen Joy Fowler, Roger Zelazny, and Lucius Shepard (Amy Stout, an editor in the field, was the sixth teacher). Prior to attending the conference, I was most excited about working with Fowler and Shepard, who were relatively new to the field and writing the kind of hybrid of fantasy and sci-fi that I myself was attempting. Of the five writers who would be teaching at Clarion West, I was least enthused about studying with Scott Card. Prior to being accepted for the workshop, I had never read any of his work. After receiving my acceptance, I went out and bought copies of Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, and a few other Card titles. I found them all to be competently written but not really my kind of fiction – too young-adulty, too 1950s. Nonetheless, then as now, Card was a big name in the field, and I was eager to hear what he had to say about the craft of writing. I just wasn’t expecting to enjoy my week with him as much I expected to enjoy the weeks I spent with Fowler or Shepard or Willis or Zelazny.
But I was wrong. Card was an amazing teacher. In fact, he may be the most generous writing teacher I’ve ever worked with. At the beginning of the first week of the conference, he told us students, “If you have a question, or want me to look at a piece of your writing, just come down to the end of the hallway and give me a holler. My door is always open.” This wasn’t hyperbole. Card literally kept his door open at all times when he was in his dorm room. The teachers were housed on the same floor of the same building as the students. All of the teachers at Clarion West were extremely approachable, but Card was the most approachable of all. Some of the teachers (I’m talking about you, Lucius Shepard) could always be counted on to hang out with us students after class in some local watering hole. Card, a devout Mormon, isn’t the “watering hole” type. He doesn’t hang out in bars. But his work ethic is amazing. When he wasn’t teaching, he was almost always writing. During the course of the week that he spent at Clarion West, he wrote an entire novella. And he wrote that novella in a dorm room whose door was literally always open. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t hate to be interrupted when his writing was flowing well. Except for Card, that is. Nothing could dam up his flow of words. If he was writing and you knocked on his (open) door, he would immediately stop writing, invite you inside, and answer any questions you might have. The minute you left his room, however, you’d hear him pounding away on his typewriter again (he almost certainly must have been using a word processor by 1989, but in my faulty memory it is the sound of a typewriter I recall hearing in his room). Before he left Seattle, he gave me his home address and told me to feel free to send books to him if I wanted them signed by him.
I have attended a lot of writing conferences and have worked with a lot of celebrity authors, many of them more famous and more highly thought of than Card. At one prestigious writing workshop I studied with a writer who is a darling of the liberal press, a man always heralded in the leading book reviews and literary magazines as a “writer’s writer” and a “serious literary artist.” I found him to be a real shit. When I showed up for my private conference with said writer (let’s call him “Fred”), he was still meeting with the student whose conference was scheduled before mine. She was a beautiful young woman and told me later that her conference mainly consisted of fending off Fred’s unwanted advances. These conferences took place in an old house in which most of the workshop’s celebrity writers were housed. While waiting in the kitchen, I heard a creaking on the stairway. I turned my head and saw Horton Foote, then in his late eighties, coming slowly down the stairs into the kitchen. There were alcohol bottles all over the kitchen. Despite being a teetotaler with no knowledge whatsoever of mixology, I asked Mr. Foote if I could fix him a drink. “Just a Coke, please,” he said to me. And so I poured him a soda and chatted until Fred finally finished sexually harassing his female student and wandered into the kitchen looking for me. When he saw Foote, Fred told me to go wait in the library for him. Instead of going straight to the library, I dawdled outside the kitchen door, hoping to catch a bit of the conversation taking place between the two literary giants who were standing just a few feet from me. What I heard was Fred telling Foote that he had just sold a novel to a film studio and wanted some advice on screenwriting. Foote had written the screenplay for the films To Kill A Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, among others. He told Fred he’d be happy to answer any questions Fred had about screenwriting. “Great,” said Fred. “Just give me ten minutes to get through this next conference and I’ll meet you in the living room.” The student/teacher conferences were supposed to last about an hour. Mine lasted five minutes. Fred clearly had no interest in me or my work (I’m pretty sure he didn’t bother to read the manuscript he was purporting to critique). He gave me a few general comments on writing, and then all but pushed me out the door. Fred may be beloved by the New York Times Book Review crowd, he may espouse all the correct opinions on gay rights and women and minorities, but he is a stingy, self-centered careerist with no real interest in anyone but himself.
Orson Scott Card, on the other hand, may espouse toxic opinions on gay marriage and other topics, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more caring and generous writing instructor than he is. Fred has produced a tiny handful of books, each one smaller and less substantial than the previous one. I feel fairly certain that Fred prefers literary celebrity to the actual work of writing. Not Orson Scott Card. He works like a demon at his writing. He writes novels, short stories, histories, reviews, newspaper columns, comic books, poems, and plays. In addition to the mountain of work he has published under his own name, he has also produced work under at least seven different pseudonyms, according to Wikipedia. If you are seeking a work-ethic role model for writers, Card is your man. If you are looking for a model writing instructor, Card is your man. If you are looking for tolerant and progressive views about gay marriage, look elsewhere; Card isn’t your man. Like Maggie Gallagher, he seems to be somewhat deranged on the subjects of homosexuality and gay marriage.
I believe that the homophobia of both Maggie Gallagher and Orson Scott Card is rooted in their religious beliefs, and I doubt that either of them enjoys demonizing an oppressed minority. Some rightwing commentators seem to relish sticking their fingers in the eyes of feminists, gays, eubonics supporters, welfare queens, and other standard conservative straw men. I don’t get the sense that speaking out against gay marriage is something that Card and Maggie Gallagher do for fun. Something in their religious upbringing makes them feel obligated to express an opinion that they must know is rapidly growing as out-of-fashion as 1950s style opposition to integrated schools and racial intermarriage. Amid all the outright racists of the 1950s there were probably a few decent but unenlightened folk who genuinely believed that the races were never intended to mix. These people probably despised cross-burnings and lynchings as much as Card and Maggie probably despise the nutjobs of the Westboro Baptist Church and their ilk. The decent-hearted but misguided segregationists of the 1950s probably felt bound by their consciences to speak out against integration and interracial marriage but probably took no great pleasure in doing so and were horrified when critics lumped them together with the cross-burners and the church-bombers. Alas, these decent folk, though well-intentioned, were still a part of an evil political movement, a movement that sought to reject tolerance and diversity and harmony among people. Sadly, Maggie and Card, though I believe they are well-intentioned decent people, are also on the wrong side of history and are also enemies of tolerance, diversity, and harmony. That being said, some of the comments being made about them at Salon and elsewhere are troubling to me. Card’s anti-gay stance has been credited by some Salon readers to his own closeted homosexuality or even to his own (imagined) pedophilia. Likewise, many internet commentators credit Maggie’s hostility to gay marriage to bitterness over the failure of her own heterosexual relationship with the father of her first child. Some say her diatribes against gay marriage are just the rantings of an overweight and unattractive woman who can’t get laid herself and therefore resents anyone who has a healthy sex life and the prospect of a happy marriage. This kind of demonization of Card and Maggie is nearly as inexcusable as the National Organization of Marriage’s demonization of gay marriage.
One of my favorite movies is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It is a near perfect cinematic gem that is marred by one tremendous flaw – the character of Mr. Yunioshi as portrayed by Mickey Rooney and as scripted by George Axelrod (Truman Capote can’t be blamed, because Yunioshi barely appears in the novella and isn’t depicted there as a cruel racial stereotype). Rooney’s portrayal of this character is so racist and so unfunny that it appears to have been spliced into the film from the outtakes of a World War II anti-Japanese propaganda movie. I can’t watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s without recoiling in horror every time Rooney comes on screen. It’s not just the racism that jars, it’s the fact that Rooney’s performance is so overdone as to be downright unwatchable except in a driving-by-the-car-wreck sort of way. Nonetheless, I love the movie and, like its millions of other fans, am willing to overlook its one big flaw.
I regret and I reject the anti-gay stances taken by Orson Scott Card and Maggie Gallagher. But I have fond memories of both of them. And I don’t like to see either of them pilloried on the internet as fire-breathing hate-mongers. Maggie Gallagher and Orson Scott Card are a lot like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Overall they are wonderfully well-made people – loving parents, hardworking, well-educated, devout Christians, generous with their time and their talents. But each of them has a Mr. Yunioshi lurking inside. And when this Yunioshi rears its ugly head, it can be hard to remember how good the rest of the picture is. They are masterpieces marred by a serious flaw. But that is a good description of many of us. And some of us have more than just one serious flaw.