A Sad Legacy of Fear, Prejudice, and Homophobia

Today marks the last day of Ross Mackenzie’s reign as editorial pages editor at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.


In a post last week, we tried as hard as we could to find some point of connection with Mackenzie and his cultivated persona as the fearless crusader “crying in the wind” of a world run amok.


This week we turn to a less pleasant topic: the impact of Mackenzie’s words over the years on gays and lesbians. A regular reader of this site, Kristen Tilley, has spent some time in the past month researching and compiling a variety of statements Mackenzie has made about homosexuality and AIDS in the pages of the RTD dating back to the mid-1980s; what follows are some of her findings.


A caveat is in order here: we are well aware that not everyone at the RTD or even everyone within the editorial staff shares Mackenzie’s views. Barton Hinkle in particular took a welcome stand against anti-gay bigotry in this November column, and in December the paper printed a moving syndicated column by Leonard Pitts about homophobia. Mackenzie’s views are his own, though it is completely fair to argue that they also reflect poorly on the RTD as a whole.

On September 24, 1985, Mackenzie wrote this about AIDS victims: “Shouldn’t we weep the most for those victims who contract this lethal pestilence [AIDS] through no conscious act of their own?

“Surely, those blameless few are far more pitiable than the many (estimated at more than 90 per cent) who contract it as a consequence of (a) illegal intravenous drug use of (b) deviant sexual behavior – specifically homosexuality. For by and large, AIDS is a behavioral disease resulting from acts of volition.”


Translation: it’s too bad those folks died from AIDS, but they brought it on themselves. 


On June 2, 1987, Mackenzie wrote, “Many in the AIDS-connected community demand nothing less than acceptance of homosexuality as normal — for only with such acceptance will homosexuals receive the public sympathy, and the consequent federal protection as a minority, they relentlessly seek. . . .

Yet homosexual anal intercourse is by far the primary means of AIDS transmission in the United States. And homosexuality is emphatically not normal: It is a deviant sexual practice now responsible for the deaths of thousands, soon to become millions — an ever-increasing number of them heterosexuals. Will the public grant sympathy and protection to . . . this?

The only appropriate public sentiments are indignation and self-preservational fear.”

As Tilley reports, there’s more:

In 1992, Mackenzie attacked the idea of inclusion of “uncloseted practitioners of aberrant behavior” in the nation’s military, and in 1993 added, “the ranks of the nation’s fighting forces are no place for the toleration of abnormal behavior” and continuously reminded his readers, “Homosexuality is not normal; it is deviant, aberrant behavior.” 

Also in 1993, Mackenzie took residence in terminology referring to gays and lesbians as a “behavioral minority group” and in specific regard to the 1993 March on Washington, noted his difficulty in taking serious what he viewed as the prime purpose of the march: “acceptance… of deviant sexual practices and practitioners as normal.” Mackenzie ridicules the group for asking too much of mainstream society, “No other group demands legitimization of strange acquired behavior… [or] seeks sympathy for its disproportionate suffering of a fatal disease (AIDS) because of practice (sodomy) in which it willfully engages.”


Do words such as these have consequences?

Yes, they do. First, they help constitute a cultural climate of hostility towards gays and lesbians, a climate that far too often leads to literal violence.

Second, they show a stunning lack of compassion and concern for gay victims of AIDS, and helped constitute a political culture which refused for far too long to recognize  AIDS as a front burner, urgent issue. Indeed, Mackenzie has repeatedly argued that funding for AIDS research is too high compared to funding for research on other diseases.


Third, words such as these undermine not only solidarity with gays and lesbians but the concept of solidarity itself, the idea that we are all in it together. The contrary idea, expressed repeatedly by Mackenzie in his tenure as editor, is that some people are normal and some people aren’t, and it’s okay to deny basic public respect to people who aren’t.


Extreme statements such as Mackenzie’s have become less acceptable over the years and gays and lesbians undeniably have attained gains in public acceptance and public respect. In Mackenzie’s view, those gains have put the future of Western civilization in doubt. Consider these not-too-long-ago comments from a November 2003 column:


“[Every lasting society has had legal strictures based on moral views of right and wrong. Homosexuality has always existed but never been normal. To institutionalize it through marriage would undermine, perhaps destroy, the most stabilizing force in Western Civilization – all in the name of Do your own thing.

. . . But then again, if in the beginning it actually had been Adam and Bruce, through the subsequent ages there never would have been all those little girls dreaming of growing up and falling in love with a guy and getting married to continue the Family of Man.”

In short, even now, Mackenzie is fundamentally opposed to the idea that society should fully acknowledge the humanity of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and the worthiness of the lives they lead.

There’s little evidence that Mackenzie has ever really engaged the enormous scientific evidence indicating that homosexuality is not a “choice” and is not a psychological defect of some kind. (Mackenzie also repeatedly has argued that it would be simply impossible for the military to function well if gays were permitted to serve openly, without engaging the growing evidence–from Australia, Canada, Israel, and over 20 other nations–to the contrary.)


But what’s worse is the lack of respect and concern shown over the years by Mackenzie towards the many thousands of gay men who have succumbed to AIDS, the persons who loved them, and (especially) the persons who advocated for them. Telling fellow human beings dying of an incurable disease that, in effect, “you got yourself into this; don’t ask us to help” reflects a scornful, miserly attitude which has no constructive place in our public life.


One of Mackenzie’s favorite topics is religion and the future of Christianity. Perhaps in his future theological musings he’ll find time for some reflection on the impact of his own words over the years on the excluded and marginalized—the very people Jesus embraced—in light of this admonition:


“Whatever you did to the least of these, you did unto me.”

Published in: on January 17, 2007 at 4:54 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. To an atheist, it’s doubly as frustrating when Christian crusaders for the denial of human rights say things like “No other group demands legitimization of strange acquired behavior.” When you’re not religious, there is no behavior stranger than religion on the warpath.

  2. Thank you for this post. It is just such prejudice, as tolerated in the Richmond press, that overshadows all reputable science and medicine that have concluded that homosexuality is not a moral choice but is a state of being.

    40 million people are infected with HIV worldwide and 25 million have died from AIDS. The majority are now heterosexuals and many are children or were infected by spouses. Had more compassion and attention been focused on this disease when it appeared in the early 1980’s, then it might have been better contained. It was the apathy and indifference of “Christians” who saw this as just punishment from God. So much for Christian caring and non-judgmental behavior.

    Homophobia, proclaimed and endorsed by the bigots such as Ross Mackenzie, gives justification for continuing bias in our state, and resultant estrangement of gays from their families, churches, and communities, depression, suicide among gay youth, and lives of closeted anguish.

    Where are the enlightened editors who will invoke tolerance over bigotry, and science over superstition?

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