No Joke

If some truly awful earthquake of the spirit shattered my life; if my wife left me and my heart and soul seeped into a Capp Street gutter; if in my dejection I was knocked flying by a Muni bus, suffering moderate, permanent brain damage; if, in other words, I became so disabled and disillusioned that I decided to return to writing for a daily newspaper, I wonder: Would I be allowed to call Willie Brown the Head Negro of City Hall?

Now, I understand that the paragraph I have just written is an offensive bit of prose. I apologize -- really, genuinely -- to Mayor Brown and anyone else who may be hurt by it. But it was necessary to illustrate what is starting to happen to Tom Ammiano, and why it ought to be stopped.

It's been less than a week since Ammiano placed second in the race to be mayor, setting up a runoff with Mayor Brown on Dec. 14. Several times already, members of our mainstream press have called Ammiano, a longtime public servant who is president of the city's Board of Supervisors, the "Queen of City Hall." Brown is the reigning King of City Hall, and the runoff will therefore be the king vs. the queen, and isn't that a cute quip. Ha ha ha. The quip is premised on Ammiano's own jokes about being gay. But it is one thing for Ammiano to joke about wearing pumps, or for Chris Rock to make jokes using a particularly vile anti-black slur. It is another thing entirely when mainstream news outlets reference a serious political candidate's sexual orientation in a way that produces this very definite subtext: Can youreally trust a flouncy frivolous homo to be mayor?

Understand something here: I despise the straitjackets that the politically correct would put on the press. I do not believe that interest groups should be allowed to edit the dictionary. But the emphasis on Ammiano's sexual orientation seems to be excessive, especially in a city where being gay is about as unusual, statistically speaking, as being, say, Asian or white. Ammiano has been a major public figure here for years now; yet the local press seems to find it necessary to describe him as a gay former comedian in every daily election story, even though the same press finds it (quite properly) unnecessary to describe Brown as a black former lawyer.

A story in Sunday's Examiner about Asian voter preferences, for instance, went out of its way to quote a supporter of Mayor Brown on why he would not vote for Ammiano: "I don't like the fact that he's gay." Could you imagine the Exquoting a man on the street who said he wouldn't vote for Willie Brown because he didn't "like the fact that he's black"?

There's not much to say about the regular cretinism of Chroniclecolumnist Ken Garcia that thinking readers have not already noticed. Garcia's "column" published last Saturday, though, set some kind of record for unthinking, misshapen viciousness, basically saying that voters who did not agree with Garcia's retrograde beliefs must have lost their minds. Here is Garcia's way of describing Ammiano's second-place finish in the mayor's race: "And if you closed your eyes and clicked your heels together three times, there was Tom, Mayor of Oz, leading the Lollipop Kids down the road to the Emerald City."

Now I suppose placing the president of the Board of Supervisors inside a children's fable, in a way that suggests he is skipping down a make-believe yellow brick road, need not be seen as an unmistakable play on the silliest stereotypes related to sexual orientation. But the summation of Garcia's column makes his general intent pretty damn clear. After criticizing Clint Reilly for allegedly misusing his baby for political purposes by keeping the infant up late at night, the Chronicle's lead columnist penned these lines:

"At least the poor thing [Reilly's baby] will now be able to get some sleep -- unlike the rest of San Francisco voters, who will be staying up nights ['wondering'?] whether Ammiano was serious when he said he would walk a mile in his pumps.

"Grass roots or grass skirts? In San Francisco, no one would notice the difference."

Like much of Garcia's writing, these sentences are vague enough as to frustrate attempts to identify an exact meaning. But it seems obvious that Mr. Garcia wants to link Ammiano in some way to the wearing of pumps and grass skirts, and to suggest that voters who aren't offended by a pump- and grass skirt-wearing candidate have, in the terminology of the headline for Garcia's pleasant little column, "spit in [the] eye of reason."

There is a word for people who believe gays ought not be elected to public office, simply because they are gay. The same word describes people who refuse to vote for a political candidate, simply because he is African-American. These people are called bigots. Bigots should be reported on, when they make news, as a public service to decent people. Bigots ought not be pandered to by reporters and columnists who should know the difference between stereotypes and human beings, and the difference between sly nastiness and serious political reporting.

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