monthly column from author/activist
The Royal Treatment
Yet Another Taliban Sex Angle!
The B.A.R. (Bay Area Reporter), San Francisco's venerable gay newsweekly, hit the stands this week with the latest sex wrinkle in an already-bizarre news story, that of the "American Taliban," John Walker. Now, if you've been reading this column regularly you'll know I think the American Taliban is actually our own far right-wing anti-sex establishment: the Army of God, Falwell, and that lot. But Walker is clearly a young American who went to fight with the Taliban, and the minute I heard about him I actually thought about the rampant (though banned) homosexuality of sex-segregated radical Islam -- the kind I wrote about in a sidebar accompanying the October Royal Treatment. Was Walker enough enamored of those lean, masculine fighters to want to cuddle up with them? Sheesh, it's not like he went there to meet girls.
There's usually a reason for youthful conversions -- something that sends an adolescent down a path his or her peers aren't taking. Part of it is just identity establishment: what makes us, as young people who've been herded around all through school, stand out, individuate, begin to leave our families. Sometimes it's a result of extreme experiences, either positive or negative. But very few of us (in America, at least) become real holy warriors -- even those who convert to a new religion, even those who follow that religion throughout the world, as so many youth of my generation did in seeking meaning though Eastern religious movements. I can understand the Trench Coat Mafia of the world, because I've seen the Lord-of-the-Flies-like effects of kids picking on each other. But did some vicious young bullies send John on a trajectory to Afghanistan -- or what?
Enter the B.A.R., whose headline -- Does it matter that John Walker's father is gay? -- poses a really provocative question, then proceeds to answer, "Naah, not really." It's not a complete scoop that Walker's dad is gay; he's out -- the Examiner stated as much in a P.J. Corkery column in December. B.A.R. writers Matthew S. Bajko and Cynthia Laird explore this news, including media coverage (or lack of it), reports that young Walker had a hard time when his father came out, and expressions of the younger man's homophobia. Then they round up a number of queer community commentators, from organizations like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE). All express discomfort with the notion that homosexuality in the family might have had any connection with Walker's actions.
GLAAD's spokesperson termed the connection "very sensationalist." It can be played that way, I suppose, and certainly from a homophobic angle. "Gay Dad Turns Son Into Terrorist!" -- that's just the kind of thing GLAAD was created to combat. There are, after all, tens of thousands of children of gay dads who have not joined the Taliban. A parents' alternative sexuality does not automatically create problems for his or her kids. Any commentator implying there's a direct relationship between gay and lesbian (or bi, or trans, or kinky, or poly) parents and fucked-up offspring is plain wrong, engaged in a homophobic and sex-phobic below-the-belt hit.
But it's also possible to protest too much, and I was intrigued to see no acknowledgement in the B.A.R. story that young Walker might have made choices influenced by his discomfort and his need to individuate from his father. Everyone in the alternative sex biz has seen parents whose kids turn out (at least temporarily) super-private about sex; homophobic; Republican; fundy Christian -- youthful strategies to be as opposite Mom and Dad as possible. In fact, many of us may be able to trace in our own youthful trajectories a choice of lifestyle or belief system that distinguished us from our own families of origin. I became a free-love bi-dyke partly in response to my own parents' not-very-inspiring version of heterosexual monogamy -- that's just one example. "I'm going to do it differently" -- isn't that a pretty common adolescent rallying cry? There's nothing wrong with it, either. Hopefully we learn enough respect and share enough values in common to bridge the inevitable gaps between generations. Sometimes the gap is unbridgeable; other times it's very small.
Something opened a path to John Walker that is not even visible to most 16-year-old American boys, for whom conversion to Islam is simply not on the map. (African-American communities, within which Black Muslims have been present for a couple of generations, are of course the main exception to this generalization.) From spiritual search to mosque, from mosque to Islamic academy, from there to Afghanistan -- it probably seemed as logical to him, once on the path, as it seems illogical to most of us. Once he embraced the religion, its various trajectories all became possibilities for Walker: peaceful study, extremist jihad.
If he was, indeed, distressed about his father's homosexuality, it might make a certain kind of sense that he chose a religious path with strict expectations about gender and about moral codes. If he sought these rigid boundaries, he could just as easily have chosen fundamentalist Christianity -- but that might have been an even odder choice, for a young Marin County guy, than was Islam. Besides, the Muslim world is largely distant from Marin County, and might have seemed less fraught with the temptations and choices surrounding an American teen. Islam had not just a Mecca, it had a utopia: Taliban-world -- Afghanistan.
If he wanted to get away from America's upsetting pluralism (and, perhaps, its effects on his own family), perhaps straight and narrow Islam seemed like a good choice. Did the irony ever dawn on him that he was entering one of the most radically homosocial cultures left on the globe? This isn't exactly the kind of culture that breeds healthy, choice-based heterosexuality. Perhaps young Walker exemplifies that certain kind of homophobic man who, professing to despise homosexuality, surrounds himself with men and nothing but men.
A Lesson in the Power of Homophobia?
I don't know, of course, whether Walker is a closet case, panicked by the revelation that his dad is gay. I don't know whether he is attracted to the cult of masculinity associated with jihad. I don't have any idea whether his father's sexuality freaked him out -- it's true that all these lines of thought are speculation.
But they're educated speculation. It surprised me to read the B.A.R.'s (and its interviewees') denial that there might be a connection mainly because this could be the most powerful example of the power of homophobia since Matthew Shepard's murder. Ever since Walker was discovered imprisoned with his brother Taliban soldiers, we have asked how this could happen: how any American could possibly take up arms in support of such an obviously despotic regime. No one has managed to really get to the heart of what drove him, or attracted him, to Afghanistan, and perhaps he cannot articulate it himself. But one possible story line is powered by homophobia and the desire to escape, and if we deny it, we won't learn from it.
I completely share the desire to believe that we adults can be anyone we want to be and raise happy children, who will then be free to be themselves. I understand why it is threatening to suggest a parent's gayness might so alienate a child that s/he might lash out and become an agent of homophobia, fear, and hatred. That is a horrible prospect. But in an already homophobic world, it's a possibility, and it sends a message to all of us in the sexually alternative communities: Don't expect your child to live in a perfect world, even if you've tried to create one. Make sure s/he has the support s/he needs to live in the world outside, too -- a world in which "gay" is an epithet, even in the Bay Area. Youth are expected to bridge the world they live in at school and among their peers with the world at home; they need skills to do that, lest the bridge they build stretches to a place we can't understand, follow, or -- as in John Walker's case -- in which we can't protect them. It doesn't serve queer folk (or any of us) to deny that our families will experience the slings and arrows of bigotry, that homophobia can live this close to home.