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Gay Panic

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Back in the good old wonderful days, Texas politicians knew how to insult each other with style. (Sam Houston on legislator Thomas Jefferson Green: “He has all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty.”) But the ultimate insult in today’s Texas politics—the call-out to end all call-outs—is a mere three-letter affair that wasn’t even one of George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words.

We learned this at the tip end of July, right around the time that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison announced that she would, at long last, challenge Gov. Rick Perry in next March’s primary. Clicking around her Web site, standbykay.com, Austin American-Statesman reporter Gardner Selby found some 2,200 hidden search phrases—a not-uncommon trick used by underhanded Web geeks to drive traffic to a site. Google frowns on this practice, because it can skew search results and send people to sites that aren’t directly relevant to what they’ve asked for. The site was quickly shut down. But that wasn’t what made headlines around the state. What caused a kerfuffle was a single one of those thousands of embedded word combinations: “rick perry gay.”

Given the fact that typing those words into your Google search box produces 523,000 results, this really shouldn’t have come as a terrific shock. Gov. Perry, bless his soul, has been the subject of unproven homo-rumors for years. But from the way both sides reacted, you’d have thought the Hutchison campaign—which blamed the wayward phrase on a Washington-based firm it hired to build the site—had accused Perry of running a child sex ring or voting for Barack Obama.

“Offensive” is what Hutchison spokesperson Jeff Sadosky called this hint of a hint of a suggestion that a candidate for governor might be one of those. Which was way too mild for Perry’s spokesperson, Mark Miner, who told the Statesman it was “repugnant and slanderous.”

Clearly, only the strongest of adjectives would suffice to convey the horror of those three words. Imagine: being kinda, sorta called gay! In 21st-century America! Four decades into the gay-rights movement! At a time when 60 percent of weekly churchgoers favor allowing gays in the military! Quel horreur, indeed.

Granted, the campaigns were obliged to say something about the Statesman‘s discovery. But both went above and beyond, seizing on a golden opportunity to gay-bash. And they picked one hell of a time to do it.

In recent months, a series of anti-gay incidents has made queer Texans look over their shoulders with more wariness than usual. In March, three men burst into Robert’s Lafitte, a gay bar on Galveston Island, and hurled epithets and rocks—including a four-pound doorstop—at patrons, sending a 57-year-old Navy veteran to the emergency room and injuring another man. In June, two men were booted out of Chico’s Tacos in El Paso for the offense of kissing while ordering. When the smoochers and their three companions called police to complain, an officer responded—and allegedly told them that it was illegal for same-sexers to kiss in public. This was surprising news, since El Paso has an ordinance against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation “by businesses open to the public.” (A similar incident last December resulted in the PDA-related arrest of two lesbians at a San Antonio mall.)

Then came Stonewall Day: the 40th anniversary of the famous protests against police harassment in New York City bars, often credited with sparking the modern gay-rights movement. On that auspicious night in late June, as folks celebrated in Fort Worth’s Rainbow Lounge, local police and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) agents raided the joint in what they claimed was a routine liquor-license inspection. That stretched the definition of “routine” just a tad: Not only were seven arrests made, but one patron, Chad Gibson, landed in intensive care with a severe head injury he suffered while being detained. (Police initially reported that he’d been drunk and fallen down during the arrest, but the truth later emerged.)

The raid was rotten enough. Some local officials’ reactions were worse. Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead seconded officers’ gay-panic excuse: Patrons, Halstead said, had stirred up trouble by making sexual advances on the police. (There’s no bigger turn-on than being raided, you know.) The cops, Halstead said, had been “touched and advanced in certain ways,” which was, of course, “offensive.” For his part, Mayor Mike Moncrief laid blame on the bar for the unfortunate timing. “It might have been helpful if the owner had informed [officers] that this was more than just another day of the week,” Moncrief said.

These ugly episodes might end up serving some salutary purposes. Gay activists have been galvanized, decent straight folks have been duly embarrassed, and some overdue discussions have broken out in chat forums and city council chambers. But far too often, what lingers in the public brain from stories like these are the adjectives and the images—the “repugnance,” the “offensiveness,” the desperate queers groping arresting officers. Plus the message that two of our state’s most powerful politicians appear to agree with the El Paso officer and the Rainbow Lounge-raiders that there’s nothing more low-down and despicable than being a gay person. Or even being kinda, sorta, labeled as one.