Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Some of the country’s most knowledgeable physicians can’t tell me with any certitude why I ended up losing sight in my right eye and am in danger of going blind, but one of my column’s readers figured it out. It’s because I’m gay.
“You have openly discussed your homosexuality,” he emailed me recently and, perhaps to his credit, attached his name, which enabled me to determine that he’s not a fundamentalist preacher from a deep-red state but an engineer living in the New York City suburbs. “That is why God could not help you. You were living in flagrant violation of his Law.”
That email was especially mean but otherwise routine. Just a week earlier, a woman who teaches at a college in Manhattan wrote: “Is it really true that you are a homosexual? I hope not. Columns written by homosexuals inevitably have their own homosexual agenda and viewpoints and cannot be read with the belief that they are impartial. I do hope that the rumors about you are not true.”
Rumors? They’re facts, though she has obviously encountered them in corners of the internet where being gay is regarded as a prompt for secrecy and a source of shame. There are many such corners, and they have plenty of denizens.
In movies, songs and greeting cards, I’m always hearing or seeing that love is forever and that it conquers all. Well, hate may be even more durable, and it has the muscle to fight love to a draw.
My inbox is proof of that; the evidence stretches back decades. And I’m talking in this case not about irate and sometimes foul-mouthed readers who dislike my opinions. All columnists encounter that, and given the privilege of our megaphones, we should. I’m talking about readers who detest the very fact of me, who I am, independent of any person or issue I lift up or tear down.
They’re strangers. They’ve never met me, never taken the measure of my generosity, kindness, loyalty or lack thereof. For them I exist in a category, as a type. That type is all they see, and that type is contemptible.
This is the kind of hate that President Donald Trump counts and draws on, the kind of hate that motivated the gunmen in El Paso, Pittsburgh and too many other places. But we’re having a discussion too limited — and indulging a mindset woefully naïve — when we make those massacres principally about him. He’s a gardener tilling soil that’s all too fertile.
It was there before him. It will be there after. And while gentler words from the White House and a better president may affect how much grows in it and how tall, the ugliness will always take root and always flower.
If you live in a certain category — black, brown, Jew, Muslim, gay, trans — you know this, and you experience events like those of the past week not just as chilling reflections of the political moment but as sad testaments to human nature. You register some of our gauziest bromides as well-intentioned delusions:
If only every white American knew and interacted with more black Americans. If only every straight person was aware and took stock of his or her gay relatives and friends. If only there were more mingling of Christians and Jews, of Jews and Muslims. If only the right leaders and the right thinking could reach and teach more people. If only, if only, if only.
Well, some people are beyond reaching and teaching. Some are hardened, not softened, by exposure to diversity. As best I can tell, a few of these gunmen were plenty exposed. It didn’t dim their righteousness or dissuade them of their rightness.
It’s easy to lose sight of this, to focus instead on the hearts and minds that have been changed, on the progress that can be made. I’ve been surprised and moved by the arc of LGBT Americans over my lifetime: I’m inexpressibly grateful for it. According to a recent poll, 63% of Americans now support same-sex marriage.
But that leaves 37% who don’t. And while most of them are above the age of 50, some are below 30 and — for whatever tangle of religious, cultural and psychological reasons — cannot bear the likes of me. They will be around for decades to come. So will their hate.
I note this to ward off complacency, which kicked in to some degree under our previous president. Barack Obama’s election told a narrative different from Trump’s. He symbolized the possibility of hatred’s ebb. But it was biding its time, waiting its turn. It always does.
That’s not to say that we should give in or get used to it. No, precisely because of its awesome stubbornness, we must do all we can to prevent its unleashing and weaponization. We must change overly permissive gun laws, take on a largely unregulated internet, push back at a public dialogue that abets the most destructive tribalism. We must punish acts of hate fiercely, not just to declare our values but also to make the haters think twice and to keep them in my inbox, armed with only words, and not in your child’s high school, armed with an assault rifle.
Meantime those of us who are hated will figure out how to muddle through, with what measures of wariness versus openness, bitterness versus grace. I wrote an email back to the professor, saying that if she had a problem with my homosexuality, she could and should stop reading me. Of course that didn’t shut her up.
“I will pray for you and may God forgive you,” she responded. “A life of perversion can be no fun, and the hereafter is sure to be disastrous. I will also pray for your mother. It must be awful to have a homosexual son.”
My mother died almost 23 years ago, after a long and hard-fought battle with cancer. She knew I was gay and took no less comfort from me because of it. She loved me no less. I didn’t tell the professor that. Instead I informed her that I was activating my spam filter and would never again see an email from her.
A colleague suggested that I report her to her school’s administration, because she must have LGBT students. I won’t. If her bigotry was a force in the classroom, her students would most likely pick up on that and rightly complain. Otherwise, I’m not the thought police. She didn’t do anything to me. And I don’t know her personal story: what demons she harbors, and why. If I did, I might feel more sympathy than anything else for her. The same goes for the God-fearing engineer, whose name, like hers, I’ll keep to myself.
The two of them are a reminder that hate has no particular profession, no education level, no ZIP code. Its sprawl is as demoralizing as its staying power. Emily Dickinson wrote, gorgeously, that “hope is the thing with feathers.” Well, hate is the thing with tentacles. It holds people tight and refuses to let go.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.