I met Chef Eddie when I was 10. At the time, my mom, who was battling Lyme Disease, had just been prescribed a strict diet of “nontoxic” foods — wheatgrass, plain quinoa, dark leafy greens — prepared in particular “nontoxic” ways — blended, pressed, heated but never boiled.
My dad, who I’m sure would have loved to stay home to triple-rinse her kale and dehydrate her fruit, was busy working a nine-to-five (which is to say, an eight-thirty-to-seven). So, my parents went looking for culinary assistance, someone who could “meal prep” for my mom in bulk.
Chef Eddie was a short, balding Jewish man who would come to our house twice a week in his all-white chef’s garb to stock the fridge with Mom-friendly dishes.
Before I noticed anything about Chef Eddie — the way his laugh seemed to escape from his nose rather than his mouth, the way his oversized sleeves folded over his knuckles when his arms hung straight, the way he brandished each of his kitchen gizmos (a salad spinner! an apple corer!) like it was a weapon in a Western — before all that, I noticed he was gay.
It’s remarkable that I knew.
At 10 years old, I hadn’t had any gay teachers or rabbis or mentors. I hadn’t read books with gay plotlines or watched movies with gay characters (unless Wanda Sykes’s “Don’t Use Gay As An Insult” commercials count). As far as I knew, there was only one gay person in the world: me.
But when I met Eddie, I knew he was like me.
One day, when my mom was at a doctor’s appointment, my aunt picked me up from school and dropped me off at home. I was walking from the garage to my bedroom when I heard Eddie in the kitchen on the phone, crying. I could make out only garbled phrases — tried everything…maybe I’ll never…I won’t go back…won’t go back to conversion therapy.
When you’re a gay kid in Florida, before you know anything about rainbow flags or equal signs or drag races with RuPaul, you know it’d probably be better if you weren’t gay. But that day, when I Googled conversion therapy on the desktop in my room, I learned that there’s an industry devoted to making people like me straight.
Homophobia is a hyperlocal thing. It’s not as simple as hating gays. Homophobes, in fact, have infinite details to arrange: How will we hate gays? Will we send them grimaces from across conference rooms or anthrax packages from across town? Will we let them go to church, or the office, or the neighborhood park? Will we let them speak to their families?
I’m from Boca Raton, Florida, the southernmost city in coastal Palm Beach County, three counties north of the state’s southern tip. There’s a saying in Florida that the more south you go the more North you get. South Florida, then, is not homophobic simply in that cliché Southern Protestant way (see Alabama), or even that cliché Southern Catholic way (see Louisiana). In South Florida, Christian moralism comes together with Cuban machismo and Long-Island-retiree “fiscal conservatism” to produce a unique brand of homophobia.
That brand has its own painful history.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a Florida legislative committee called the Johns Committee undertook a statewide purge of gay and lesbian teachers from public schools and universities. Teachers suspected of homosexuality were locked in interrogation rooms for hours, deprived of food and water, and forced to out their gay coworkers — all before being fired without severance or apology. The University of South Florida, right in my community’s backyard, was one of the hardest-hit institutions. The Johns Committee was aggressive, but, the legislature argued, rightfully so — because children needed to be protected from the horror of homosexuality.
In the late 1970s, Anita Bryant, Florida’s famous citrus spokeswoman turned conservative poster child, launched a campaign to repeal a newly passed Miami-Dade County ordinance that protected gay people from housing and employment discrimination. Her strategy was simple: smear the gay community ruthlessly.
She bought out pages of newspaper space for ads that linked homosexuality with anti-Christian and anti-American imagery — perversion, molestation, and Communist invasion. After her campaign succeeded, she instigated similar ballot measures in communities across the country, evangelizing the gospel of homophobia she’d invented and branded as South Florida’s. She called her movement “Save Our Children.”
And in 2003, when the Supreme Court struck down so-called sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, the Florida legislature decided to keep its now-unenforceable “Unnatural and Lascivious Act” law on the books. It was a symbol, for the children, that gayness ought not to be seen as normal.
When I was a teenager, I watched the U.S. undergo an LGBT-rights reckoning. I was 16 when the Supreme Court guaranteed the right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. I was 17 when former President Obama made Stonewall the first national monument to LGBT history. I was 18 when the military began covering gender-confirmation surgeries for some transgender service members. To me, these were welcome signs that the nation was moving past its history of anti-LGBT hate.
But these reforms said nothing about my community — its fired gay teachers, evicted gay tenants, and incarcerated gay lovers, its hyperlocal history of homophobia. As far as I was concerned, we still had healing to do.
That’s why it meant so much when, on October 10, 2017, as I pored over a psychology textbook in my freshman dorm at Yale, I received a breaking-news email from the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council: “Boca Raton Enacts Ordinance Protecting LGBTQ Youth from Discredited ‘Conversion Therapy.’” I read the headline over and over, then found the newly passed ordinance online and mouthed it to myself over and over: “It shall be unlawful for any provider to practice conversion therapy on any individual who is a minor, Ord. No. 5407.”
I thought of Chef Eddie.
The homophobia of my community has long been framed around the sacredness of children. So, when Boca Raton passed an ordinance protecting children from antigay hate, it was calculated — an invocation of, and response to, our particular history of homophobia. Boca Raton’s ordinance said to gay people like me, “We now recognize the real threat to our children. It isn’t you, your gayness. It’s the idea that people like you should be changed.”
Conservatives claim to promote local solutions to local problems. That’s why, according to conservative lawmakers, Roe v. Wade is a problem — because individual communities should be allowed to make rules based on their individual moral judgments. That’s why in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which forced states with troubling histories of voter suppression to get pre-clearance before changing voting laws — because individual communities should be able to reckon with their own histories of discrimination.
And yet, in later November, conservatives on the federal bench in the Southeast U.S. betrayed their own local-rule philosophy. I learned about it in another email from the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council: “BREAKING NEWS: Trump Judges Strike Down Palm Beach County and Boca Raton Bans On LGBTQ Conversion Therapy for Minors.”
The decision, 2-1, came from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the last stop before the U.S. Supreme Court. In practice, the decision means that so-called conversion therapists in Boca Raton (and in Palm Beach County, which passed an ordinance similar to Boca Raton’s in December 2017) can open shop once again. It means anti-conversion-therapy ordinances in more than 20 other Florida jurisdictions are now virtually unenforceable. It means my community cannot legally take its own history into its own hands.
When I received this email, I thought of Chef Eddie again.
The work of healing is hard, but we chose it. The day my community passed an ordinance protecting children from the cruelty of conversion therapy, we began our move past years of homophobic complicity. We have chosen to heal because every day that antigay “conversion therapists” practice in our community — therapists like Dr. Robert Otto and Dr. Julie Hamilton, the plaintiffs in the Eleventh-Circuit suit — our suicide rate swells and our hate-crime count ticks up. We have chosen to heal because we believe that shame blights our neighborhoods and dehumanization devalues our homes. We have chosen to heal because we refuse to habituate to violence.
And we have made these choices for ourselves, indulged in the right for which conservatives claim to have fought from the start — the right to formulate local solutions to local problems based on our local moral convictions. But now, conservatives seem to be perturbed. Is it that our solution happens to be guided by science and grounded in human dignity? Or is it the troublesome realization that phrases like local autonomy and protect our children can do more than shield under-the-table hate? Indeed, with power, people may choose to codify love. This is what my community tried to do. It’s time conservatives let us.
Matt Nadel is an award-winning filmmaker and writer from Boca Raton, currently studying History at Yale University. While a senior at Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, Matt served as a member of the National Student Council of GLSEN, the nation’s largest K-12 LGBTQ advocacy group, and was awarded the 2016 Daniel Hall Social Justice Award by the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. His work can be seen at mattnadel.com.