Tuesday, January 07, 2014

A little more about John Chamberlain

I appreciated Chris Steinbach's tribute yesterday to our friend John Chamberlain, Remembering the gay-rights leader from Chariton. John's light shined so brightly and he affected so many other lives in a positive way before his own was cut short --- it was good to see a little of that light reflected on his hometown, to which he was a credit.

Like Chris, I got to know John rather late --- through mutual friends and Facebook. 

Have you ever noticed when driving out of state that a conversation with a stranger who has spotted your Iowa license plate sometimes begins, "Do you know ....? He/she lives in Iowa." It works kind of the same way with LGBT people, too --- if you're from the same place it's kind of expected that you'll know each other, which is not necessarily the case.

My school was Russell, not Chariton. John was almost (but not quite) a generation younger --- I was already in high school when he was born and off to college soon thereafter. And he certainly was far more beautiful, in any number of ways.


Like Chris, I followed the tributes posted to John's Facebook page Sunday by family and friends.

His longtime friend Ruth Comer used words from Act 3, Scene 2, of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: "When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun." 


There seemed only one misstep, bad timing by a friend tangled up in grief  who suggested that because John was not conspicuously religious, some of the imagery being used seemed a little over the top; that traditionally, religious people have not viewed heaven as a destination or angel wings a likely reward for people like us.

It's sometimes hard for good Christians to realize that nearly every gay person has been pretty badly mauled by bad Christians at one time or another, and that holyspeak used with the best of intentions to express concern can grate sometimes. Jacob was beaten up kind of badly, and that was too bad.


This is a small town and I've heard, "Isn't it a shame?" a couple of times this week. And it certainly is sorrowful that he died too soon.

But there was no shame involved in John's life. He lived fully, with great zest and honesty, then after the double whammy of an HIV and Hepatitis c diagnosis, broadened the range of those he was naturally inclined to be helpful to and supportive of.

It's useful to remember, too, that he shined so brightly in part because he was gay, not in spite of it.


Some years ago, not long after the death of Helen "Mrs. K" Krutsinger, an educator who affirmed all of her CHS students and whose mentoring John was grateful for, he wrote a letter to the Chariton newspapers in appreciation. He also mentioned some of his concerns --- equal rights, including marriage, for LGBT people. I think he still was living in the St. Louis area at the time, but can't remember for sure.

Now one of things we do not talk too much about in Chariton, other than among ourselves, is the fact that the publisher of our weekly newspapers has a mean streak that seems pathological sometimes, expressed most often in his weekly columns. Gay people often are among his targets, as are "liberals" in general.

He published that letter, then turned on John editorially --- in the same issue and on the same page, castigating him for who he was and what he believed, suggesting that there was no place in Chariton for his kind.

The publisher does not live here, by the way.

A week later, one of Chariton's righteous women --- I think there was only one, but can't remember for sure--- repeated the publisher's message in another letter, also published, more or less consigning John to hell.

This was predictable, hardly a surprise to those of us accustomed to the bullying and used to ignoring it. But the shameful thing was, no one stood up publicly for John in response --- including me.

I thought about it, but heck I didn't live there any more and thought it unlikely I'd move back, then rationalized inaction further by deciding that if I wrote a response, the publisher and his choir of crones would just respond as they had to John and prolong the misery.

I'm told John took this journalistic travesty to heart and that it affected the way he felt about Chariton and its people, leaving him with the impression that the publisher's views reflected those of the community at large.

It did not and it does not and I'm ashamed. Although it's way too late now, welcome home.


Buzz Malone said...

The vitriolic hyperbole of one newspaperman pandering to his masters (the paper owners) in the bible belt do not reflect the views of an entire community. However, it does give one pause that he has been left unmolested to spew his hate filled rhetoric for so long a time.

Anyhow, well said piece. I did not know the man you wrote about, but wish that I had.

Frank D. Myers said...

In some ways, it's a classic bullying situation. Many of those who could challenge him effectively don't do it because they feel they need access to the media he controls. Others are afraid of inviting the abuse attracting his attention would bring. And of course this has not been a place where many would stand publicly as LGBT advocates.

Anonymous said...

I had only recently moved back to Chariton at that time, and I reached out to John to let him know that the views on the editorial page certainly didn't represent the feelings of all (or even a majority) of residents. But I didn't speak out publically, either, for a variety of reasons -- none of which seem very good, in hindsight. I know it hurt John, but in true John fashion, he turned his personal pain into activism. His courage was raw, and fierce, and unflinching. He wrung more out of life than almost anyone I've ever met, and I know for a fact that more than one person in our town has changed his/her opinion about LGBT issues on the basis of knowing John Chamberlain. As legacies go -- well, that's a pretty damn good one.


Tim McGee said...

“Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.”
George Carlin
It was only after I read this quote from Mr Carlin that I realized he had a subscription to the Chariton Newspapers!