[World, October 15, 1994]
We had gathered, about a hundred pro-family leaders, for a weekend conference in a Washington hotel. It was encouraging to see so many other fellow laborers assembled at one time; we filled a small dining room at lunchtime, and felt like the forward edge of a mighty army.
But as the day went on we began to be outnumbered by cowboys. Cowboys in the elevators, cowboys in the halls, cowboys sitting at tiny glass tables in the lounge. Two things about this seemed unusual: first, Washington, D.C. is not a cowboy kind of town. Any cows who make it inside city limits have already been reduced to steak. And the bull-byproduct the town is known for is actually produced by guys in suits.
But something else about these cowboys seemed out of synch. I always imagined cowboys to have a sprawling presence scaled for endless plains, a physical expansiveness unrelated to their body size. Cowboys might appear awkward under roof, perhaps charmingly bashful, but never brittle or edgy.
These cowboys didn’t fit that image. They were nervous. Their presence was, if anything, smaller than average, more compressed and self-protective. I stood near one waiting at the elevator bank: perfect black boots, jeans aged carefully as wine, and above the black moustache eyes darting sidewise furtively.
The mystery became clear when I examined the sign over their registration table: Atlantic States Gay Rodeo Association. Back in our meeting room, whispers went hissing by: “All those cowboys—they’re homos!” Someone snickered. Someone said, “Maybe we should pray for them.” Another grumped, “Next time, we ought to find out whoelse in going to be in our hotel.” But I was thinking about George.
I met George during my pagan college days; I still remember his large, lightbulb-head topped with sparse blond hair, his invisible blond moustache, the compressed and awkward way he carried his large frame. His skin was pale as cellar vines, and his eyes pale as water, barely blue. George was from a hard-scrabble Southern town called Ulmer. George was a genius. George was gay.
One night George and I sat under a tree in the women’s quad and he asked me, nervously, if it showed that he was gay. No, I lied. He wasn’t effeminate, but he was jittery, arch, and unhappy. Behind his nervous laugh, woundedness flowed out of him like a stream.
Too-clever George had been misunderstood in Ulmer. He grew up dirt-poor, brushing flies away from the peaches at a roadside stand, while reading all eleven volumes of the Durants’ “Story of Civilization.” At home he listened to the symphony crackling over the radio from the big city, the county seat. He taught himself some Bach on the piano.
“That boy has no common sense,” neighbors said. But George had plenty of other kinds of sense: when assigned a paper on paradoxical novelist John Barth, he wrote 100 pages—cleverly constructed to begin refuting itself on the 50th page. (This was in the pre-computer 1970’s, when a hard copy was the only kind possible.) He showed me another paper, this one for history, on which the professor had written, “I really am not capable of grading this.” George ended up going into Classical Studies, spending Sundays in the library with old leather volumes of Greek and Latin.
The sad cowboys reminded me of George. One quiet evening, in a tentatively self-revealing mood, he told me about the loneliness of the gay life. He described the previous weekend’s after-hours session at Midge’s bar. Midge’s was egalitarian: some nights were set aside for male gays, some for lesbians, and friendly straights were welcome anytime. Anytime, that is, except Fridays after midnight. Then the doors were closed to give the guys a chance to be alone together, to dress up and stand in the spotlight, lipsynching to scratchy records.
The previous Friday, George said, a chubby guy in a black thrift-shop gown had taken the microphone and stood alone to sing along with “West Side Story.” “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us,” he silently mouthed, behind the female singer’s soaring voice. “Someday, somehow, we’ll find a new way of living. We’ll find a way of forgiving, somewhere.”
By the time he finished, everyone was crying. “That’s what it’s like,” George said. “There’s no place for us. We never fit in. We don’t belong anywhere. All we have is this few hours in a crummy dive on Friday night. Mostly, we’re alone.”
George gave me the best gift of my life: he introduced me to Gary, my husband now for many years. We planned that, at our wedding out in the woods, George would walk before us in the procession. But a month before that date George was driving alone down a two-lane North Carolina road. Just outside Rockingham he drifted into the oncoming lane, swerved back to avoid hitting another car, and flipped over into a ditch. He was killed instantly.
Now he is gone, lost to me forever. Weeds long ago swarmed over the gravel on an Ulmer grave. I may never see him again. Like me at that time, he rejected and ridiculed Christian faith, and I have no way to calculate how such a one might be saved. God is still sovreign, and I have hope. But I don’t have the confidence I would in other cases. George died just before noon on a warm Good Friday. As far as can I know, he may never see Easter morning.
There is a place for him. There was a place for him.
The sad, nervous cowboys shuffled near us all weekend; we passed by them Christians, destined for eternity, destined to live for the praise of God’s glory. We found them frightening, or humorous, or loathsome. They didn’t find us at all.
One of George’s favorite quotes was a line from French poet Paul Valery: “Dieu a tout fait de rien, mais le rien perce.” I was a non-believer, an anti-believer then; I was flippant and cynical and loved it. On a lark I embroidered it as a gift for him, flowing letters festooned with flowers. The translation is: “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothing still shows through.” That was the only thing I ever told George about God.