How much penance for youthful follies?

As the long-ago misbehavior of public figures like Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has been exposed, maybe you’ve been recalling regrettable incidents from your own past. I have. Among them are a couple of misdeeds for which I wish I could apologize to two gay men. I can’t remember their last names anymore, and even if I could, they might not be alive almost half a century later.

About the first episode, I can plead more ignorance than prejudice. This may be hard to believe, but so sheltered was my youth that I can’t remember hearing the word “homosexual” until I was already an adult. It was certainly not used at home or in the Catholic schools I attended for 14 years. That I still remember the offenses so long after, however, shows that I knew I behaved badly.

A 22-year-old working at a newspaper group in upstate New York, I sat next to another reporter named Tim. We often joked and wisecracked. Once I repeated a joke that my new husband had made about gay men. Tim laughed — which in the early 1970s was likely what you did if you were in the closet. It couldn’t have been much later, since I kept the job only one year, that I figured out Tim’s sexual orientation, but I never apologized for what I’d said. 

In my next job I met a gay man who would become my oldest continuing friend. John was so open that he erased my naïveté, but I still mishandled a later budding friendship with a gay man. 

I met Dean in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin when I was 27 or 28. We had been sharing friendly chats for a while before Dean trusted me enough to confide that he was gay. The disclosure was awkward, his discomfort giving rise to mine, so instead of doing the right thing — being the one to initiate our next get-together — I waited for him to follow up. He must have felt rejected, and I never saw him again. I wish I had made sure he knew immediately that nothing was changed between us. 

If I were asked to explain my behavior, I might answer, “I’m not sure why,” as federal appeals court nominee Neomi Rao said last week when a confirmation hearing inquired into her sexist writings in college. Rao was criticized for not being more self-reflective, but I understand not wanting to dissect your younger self. You want to say instead, “I was immature then. That’s not the way I’d behave today.”

Virginia Gov. Northam denies that he is one of the people in a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page, but he admits wearing blackface on another occasion. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has also confessed to wearing blackface decades ago. There’s been a lot of commentary about how much they should be held accountable for actions when they were young and less aware. It seems to me that if they’re repentant and have not displayed racism since then, they should be able to move on doing good. I don’t feel the same about Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who has been accused of more recent sexual assaults. He denies the allegations, but they need to be investigated and the truth uncovered. If Fairfax is guilty, an apology isn’t enough. Sexual assault is a crime; wearing blackface isn’t.



It’s not just the prolonged political dispute about the US-Mexico border that keeps refugees on my mind lately. A friend loaned me Exit West, Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 novel featuring a refugee couple. Last week I saw the exhibit Stateless: Views of Global Migration at the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the film Rona, Azir’s Mother, about displaced Afghans living in Iran, at the Siskel Film Center. I recommend all three, but none had the emotional impact for me as Night Coming Tenderly, Black, a photography exhibit at the Art Institute. 

Night Coming Tenderly, Black focuses on our native refugees — the African American slaves who courageously tried to escape to Canada before the Civil War. In Dawoud Bey’s large-scale, black-and-white images shot at night near Cleveland, the last stop on the Underground Railroad, viewers sense how the dark fields, forests, Lake Erie, houses, and fences would have looked to the mid-19th-century escapees. This is the most powerful exhibit I’ve seen in months. See it if you can. The Art Institute is free for Illinois residents every Thursday evening.





“The County of El Paso is disillusioned by President Trump’s lies regarding the border and our community, and though it is difficult to welcome him to El Paso while he continues to proliferate such untruths, we do welcome him to meet with local officials to become properly informed about our great and safe region.”

— resolution signed by El Paso’s four commissioners and Judge Ricardo Samaniego before Trump’s visit to the border 


Leave a comment
  • Thanks, for the New York Times article suggestion. I liked it.

  • Me too.

Leave a comment