Rawlins Gilliland: Gay Role Models - Only Time Will Tell? | KERA News

Rawlins Gilliland: Gay Role Models - Only Time Will Tell?

It’s human nature at any age to seek heroes with whom we self-identify.  But commentator Rawlins Gilliland questions how this applies when would-be role models remain invisible.


Any study of childhood development confirms the crucial and lifelong effects of positive or negative role models. Beyond the family unit, when professional athletes or pop cultural luminaries disappoint us, we say, "They had a responsibility as a role model to the children who look up to them."  I wrote years ago about how, when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the major leagues, he was an instant beacon to any black child anywhere and an eye-opening exemplar role model to anyone still mired in the racist mindset norm. When Sandra Day O’Connor joined the Supreme Court, she knew how much just seeing her wear that robe could change the hearts and minds in male-dominated heartlands.

Fast forward to a friend’s daughter sharing how she ‘shields’ her grade school children from "the progressive gay agenda." I was stunned, knowing that her falsely accused teacher husband was acquitted of child molestation charges with a defense team of two gay men. This breathtaking disconnect made me yet again ponder how much the stereotype fears of those whose sexual orientation is same sex would have changed in my lifetime had the spectrum of positive role models not been denied to us all when almost no one was admittedly gay. 

Cases en pointe: Only now I read that everyone’s favorite children’s author, Maurice Sendak, had a half-century relationship with a male partner?  As with the fabled architect Phillip Johnson, also with a man 50 years, this is something that typically, pardon the pun, "came out" only after Sendak was elderly, dying or dead.  More recently, we lost a great hero, Sally Ride, who considered her least remarkable feat being chosen the youngest and first American woman in space.  We learn upon her death that this stunning Stanford scholar, world class athlete, lionized physicist and ground-breaking science education advocate was also a lesbian with a surviving partner of several decades.  Why are generations of boys and girls, men and women, never made aware that these iconic contributors were, also, gay? 

An especially closer to home example is my childhood idol, the author of The Complete Book of Marvels, Richard Halliburton.  As a kid in the 1950s, I was mesmerized reading this man’s exploits; climbing the pyramids or swimming the entire Panama Canal.  Unknown to me, until I was a senior citizen, my hero Halliburton was also a homosexual.  I read his books rabidly at a time when Liberace represented the closeted creative flamboyance expected of gay men.  Fortunately I went on to experience bonafide adventures of my own.  But I beat the self-image, self-esteem odds while most of my peers killed themselves with guns or alcohol, drugs or sexual self-destruction after being proffered, the entire time they were growing up, few openly gay men to emulate beyond the degraded discard victims. 

What if I had known at a formative age that, when I too climbed inside the great pyramid of Cheops, my inspiration to do so, Richard Halliburton, was a gay male upon whose shoulders I stood?