Intolerant of intolerance

The following article first appeared in the Ojai Valley News on July 22, 2011. It is appears here with their permission.

Passing the Buck
Intolerant of intolerance
Bill Buchanan

The worst case of poison oak I ever caught was from climbing a hill to throw black paint on a Ku Klux Klan billboard. On a chilly evening in the fall of 1971, my senior year in high school, three friends and I left in the middle of a football game to deface a sign that we felt was an embarrassment to anyone with any sense.

The sign had been posted at one of the gateways to the town. It featured a hooded rider on horseback, and read, “The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan welcome you to Fort Payne, Alabama.” That was our hometown, and that sign had to go. So we devised an elaborate plan that involved two of us hauling four cans of black paint up a steep hill to the billboard. With our hearts beating loudly enough to be heard in the next county, we happily dropped our bombs on the offending target. The sign was never replaced.

Afterward, the four of us were jubilant. We were terrified when we thought about getting caught by the police, or revenge that might be visited upon us if it was discovered who defaced the sign. But the pride I felt in doing something I knew to be right outweighed my fear.

My disgust for racial prejudice came as a result of playing basketball. My school had been integrated when I was 9 years old. In my little town, integration went smoothly and without incident. I had classes with African-Americans, but did not have much interaction with black students. That changed when I joined the basketball team in high school and acquired some black teammates.

I came to know and like some of the black guys on the team. We shot baskets together, practiced together, ran sprints together, and joked in the locker room together. Later, when we became comfortable with each other, we sometimes cruised around town together. These were good guys. So when someone said something negative about African-Americans, they weren’t just talking about a nameless group of people. They were talking about Donnie, Ralph, Sam and Robert — guys I knew and liked.

The current crusade by some against gay rights reminds me of the civil rights struggles in the ’60s and ’70s. Some, including a few presidential candidates, are attempting to make political hay from bashing gay people. This prejudice and marginalization of gay people is as wrong now as the abuse of African-Americans was then.

While I joined the fight against racial prejudice early on, I was late to the game on gay rights. For too many years I used gay slurs and told derogatory gay jokes. For this, I am deeply ashamed.

Acquiring gay friends changed my attitude. Perhaps my prejudice was fueled by the belief that people had a choice in their sexual preference. But I learned that belief was mistaken. Every gay friend with whom I have spoken told me that they knew early in life, even as small children, that they were different. I realized that you are either straight, or you are born gay — and nothing is going to change that.

A significant percentage of our population is gay or lesbian. They are our friends, our co-workers and members of our family. No matter how you view homosexuality, gay Americans are citizens and deserve the same rights afforded everyone else under the law.

Anything less is morally indefensible.