Tom Wolfe, the white-suited celebrant of rugged guys, once described educator and politician John Silber as “the last candid man.” Of course, many men—perhaps too many—are candid. But only straight shooters are honored by the guyim. The heroic contrarian embodies the backlash against feminism and gay rights—and Silber fits that role like an iron glove.
Known for his sexist outbursts, homophobic diatribes, and ringing defenses of traditional values, Silber came within two points of winning the governorship of Massachusetts in 1990. If it had been up to male voters alone, he would have beaten liberal Republican William Weld. Silber is a classic social conservative, adamantly opposed to abortion and gay rights. The fact that so many men were drawn to him, in what is arguably America’s most liberal state, shows how deeply sexual politics cuts. The demand for a return to patriarchal values can command a large constituency if it’s dressed up in moral righteousness and populist plain speaking. Silber, one of the few academics to succeed in talk radio, combines a shock-jock’s knack for viciousness with an intellectual’s gift for rationalizing bigotry.
For the past 30 years (except for a stint as chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education), Silber has been based at Boston University, where he is currently chancellor. Constrained by the need to please largely liberal alumni, whose contributions are crucial to this private institution, he hasn’t done much more than inveigh against the usual suspects. He lambasted the dean of BU’s school of theology for suggesting that the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality. He made sure the university rejected a request that sexual orientation be added to its anti-discrimination policy. But last month, Silber went beyond the sin of omission. He demanded that the high school academy affiliated with BU disband its gay-straight alliance.
This two-year-old club, with about a dozen members, had organized demonstrations to raise awareness of homophobia. At one point, a quarter of the academy took a vow of silence for one day to protest the silencing of gay people. But Silber saw the club in a different light. He accused it of practicing “evangelism” and teaching “homosexual militancy.” To Silber, a support group for gay students could only encourage them (and God knows who else) to have gay sex. “We’re not running a program in sex education,” he said. If students want that, they can go to public school, where they will “learn how to put a condom over a banana.”
Bear in mind that the state of Massachusetts funds gay-straight alliances in 156 schools. Bear in mind that the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) sponsors clubs in some 800 high schools across 47 states. Teaching students to use condoms is not on the agenda. But to Silber, sex is the long and short of being gay. He has asserted that most homosexuals come to their orientation “because that is the way in which they were first seduced into sex. Not because of anything else. And there’s no reason for us to encourage that.” As for the possibility that gay people can lead healthy sex lives, Silber has stated that “homosexuals report a level of obsessive promiscuity anyone would consider pathological in a heterosexual.”
Many people hold these views, which is one reason why Silber has gotten so far. But in his case, the bias he ascribes to sound moral judgment has personal roots. In 1995, Silber’s son died of AIDS. Imagine his reaction if his son were gay. Outspoken men are not usually prone to self-examination. It’s much easier to conclude that your kid was drawn to homosexuality by a seducer, and that his practices reflected the inherent pathology of gay life, than to consider the effect of a harsh, rejecting father on a gay son’s sex life. So many men of Silber’s type can only react, when life bites them in the ass, by biting back.
Silber’s brand of bigotry is not without its victims. Now that the federal government and many local agencies are starting to keep statistics on harassment in high school, it’s becoming clear that gay students who don’t suffer the devastating effects of homophobia are the fortunate exception.
GLSEN cites a 1999 survey conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Education, which reported that 24 percent of gay or lesbian students had been threatened with a weapon during the previous school year. Twenty percent said they were involved in fights that required medical attention. (Among straight students in the survey, only 8 percent were threatened with a weapon and 4 percent got into a fight.) As the federal Department of Health and Human Services has concluded, “The unusually high rate of suicide among gay, lesbian, and bisexual young people is related to the persistent harassment they experience, especially from peers.”
If people really cared about the lives of gay youth, groups like the one at BU’s academy would be part of a program that included sensitivity training and penalties for queer baiting. But moralists like Silber have always been willing to protect young people from homosexuality at the cost of gay lives.
In a speech to students and faculty following the gay-straight alliance flap, Silber not only stood his ground, he fortified it. In response to questions after his talk, which was called “Tolerance and Its Consequences,” he argued that institutions should be allowed to discriminate against gay people as long as violence against them isn’t encouraged. “If you don’t discriminate,” Silber said, “how are you going to decide what to tolerate or what not to tolerate?”
This reasoning has always been a rationale for bigotry, and that’s how most of his audience reacted. The protests accelerated last week, when nearly half the law school’s students signed a statement pledging not to contribute to the university after they graduate. This tactic could spread to the alumni as a whole, which is no doubt why Silber has reacted with rage. He accused the protesters of exhibiting “a taste for coercion rather than persuasion”—as if his own decisions haven’t been coercive. But when faced with effective dissent, the last candid man’s first reflex is to portray himself as a victim of censorship.
Of course, Silber has consistently come out for censoring expression he regards as unconscionable—and not just at BU. He blasted a judge for granting a transgendered student the right to wear a dress at school. He demanded that NAMBLA be banned from the Internet (though the group has never been linked to any crime). He urged citizen action against lewdness on TV, even as he blasted GLAAD for boycotting Dr. Laura’s show. Silber’s view of civil liberties brings to mind the adage about politics: Where you stand depends on where you sit.
You can say the same about candor: It’s a virtue when it affirms your values, but not when it threatens them. Tom Wolfe, that coy defender of the real man’s faith, wrote a novella called Ambush at Fort Bragg that rationalizes the murder of a gay soldier by his fellow recruits. Wolfe’s honorific for these men is “Lords of testosterone.” No wonder he calls Silber “my favorite politician.”
Footnote to the above: On October 14, a federal district court ruled that a high school in Indiana cannot bar students from forming a gay-straight alliance. The ruling echoes similar decisions that the federal law protecting Bible clubs in high schools also applies to gay support groups. Is Boston University next?