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Thursday, April 7, 2016 12:22 am

Being all you can be

Springfield to gay man in 1993: “We don’t need to know that.”

This week I dust off a Prejudices column from June 3, 1993, when same-sex marriage was illegal in Illinois and many Springfieldians still believed that same-sex love should be too. Tom Chiola, by the way, went on to serve as a judge of the Illinois Circuit Court of Cook County from 1994 to 2009; he was the first openly gay person elected to any federal, state, county or municipal office in Illinois.The original has been edited for length.

The other day a few high schoolers stumbled over a pothole that lay in the straight and narrow path that leads from Springfield’s classrooms through the banquet rooms at the Holiday Inn East toward adult respectability. His name was Tom Chiola, the main speaker at this year’s Golden Laurel Awards banquet, where each year for the last 35 years National Honor Society members have been fed inspirational messages and hotel dinners – both usually overcooked.

The 40-ish Chiola is a politically ambitious attorney who grew up in Springfield, where he was a Marine Bank Student of the Year and a Golden Laurel banquetee. In the course of the standard be-all-you-can-be speech he mentioned the fact that he is gay. From the way some of the students and their parents reacted, you would have thought that they’d found a cockroach amid the cucumbers. After his speech, Chiola reports, he was challenged by some “very confrontational” Christians who accused him of foisting his lifestyle on their children.

It would be easy to inflate this little dust-up out of proportion, but what happened at the Golden Laurels is multiplied thousands of times each day across the United States, to the detriment of public discourse. The mere mention that Chiola is gay hardly constituted a “platform for discussing his personal sex preference,” as one of the mothers present later alleged. It would be just as sensible to accuse Chiola of using the Golden Laurels as a forum for discussing his brown-hairedness, or his maleness, or his Italian-Americanness. No doubt some mention was made in his introduction of the fact that Chiola once sat on the board of the Prairie Capital Convention Center – talk about setting a bad example for youth!

A Calvary Academy senior told the SJ-R afterward about Chiola’s revelation, “We don’t need to know that.” I envy her knowing what she needs to know at 17 or 18 years of age. Looking back, I wish I had gone to a Bible-based Christian school that judges students by what they don’t learn. Fun while it lasts, no doubt, but I wonder whether using the Bible as a social studies text prepares kids for the next world at the cost of leaving them prey to dangerous misunderstandings about this one.

Those who believe that man is literally made in the image of God must be a bit unsettled at the accumulating scientific evidence suggesting that gayness is not a lifestyle choice but the expression of a predilection that is genetic in origin. That God programmed into himself the potential for homosexuality is not the only instance I can think of that he was broader-minded than most of his followers, but it is perhaps the most satisfyingly ironic.

Gayness in short is not something the impressionable can be talked into. Similarly, a gay person can be bullied or sweet-talked into acting straight but he or she can’t be straight any more than I can bear a child. Even decent Christian boys grow up gay, and their realization of that fact (and their secret distress at somehow being the cause) may explain the exaggerated anxiety that so many fundamentalist Christian parents seem to have about the subject.

Assuming the teens in the audience that night were representative of the larger world lurking outside, anywhere from four to twenty of them are themselves homosexual. Coming to terms with one’s sexual identity in adolescence is hard enough if you are straight; doing so in an atmosphere of ignorance and fear forces most gay teens into a guilt-ridden and confused silence. Chiola reports that he received cards after the event from people telling him how much it would have helped to ease their anguish as outcasts if someone had told them in high school the things that Chiola said at the banquet.

As has been pointed out in the debate over gays in the military, the real evil in homosexuality is the hatred it inspires in fearful straight people. To their credit, some of the adults present reacted to Chiola’s remark with common sense. The organizer of the dinner – a local civic club type of the sort not usually counted among First Amendment activists – said it would be inappropriate to censor guest speakers at an event ostensibly to celebrate the opening of young minds. Top officials from both District 186 and Sacred Heart-Griffin High School – people with whom I have not been able to agree on most school issues, try as I might – defended Chiola’s remark without endorsing him. They thus proved that they have not yet forgotten that being exposed to things you don’t already agree with is what distinguishes education from indoctrination.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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