Good friends and books can change us

By: D.G. Martin - Contributing Columnist

Why have the attitudes of people in our state towards gay and transgender people changed so quickly and so dramatically?

Before even trying to answer, I should acknowledge that many people have not changed so quickly and some have not changed at all.

That said, there has been a dramatic and almost unbelievable change in many people, something you would not have predicted only a few years ago at the turn of the millennium.

Why so fast?

A powerful factor in changing our attitudes has been what we learned from people we came to know and admire. Whether they were gay, transgender, or struggling to resolve confusion about their identity, our connection to them opened the door for changed attitudes.

Books have been a powerful change agent, too.

For instance, “Hide” by North Carolina native and Wake Forest graduate Matthew Griffin tells a moving story that pushed my understanding of gay lives.

Earlier this week, “Hide” won the Crook’s Corner Book Prize of $5,000 for the best debut novel set in the American South.

“Hide” is the story of two older men who have lived together for many years at the edge of a small North Carolina town. Frank is a World War II veteran, tough talking and covered with tattoos. Wendell is a taxidermist who serves the hunting community. These two hardly fit the caricature images of being gay. But they are gay, and they have paid a heavy price for it. For years there was isolation from family, and unrelenting and constant fear that, somehow, someone would blow the whistle to law enforcement about their illegal relationship and activities.

The greatest power of the novel is not, however, in any testimonial argument or inside look at the gay lifestyle. Quite the contrary, the story’s power comes from the tortured and tender way in which Wendell and Frank adapt to Frank’s rapidly deteriorating physical and mental condition.

When Frank suffers a stroke while tending the tomato plants in his beloved garden, the ambulance rushes him to the hospital, and Wendell follows. But because only family members are allowed to accompany Frank, Wendell tells the attendant that he is Frank’s brother. When he is asked to show identification, he fumbles and then tells the attendant he left his wallet at home He is worrying that if she saw his last name was different from Wendell’s, his lie about being a brother would cause more trouble.

As Frank’s condition declines, there is a growing emptiness in the lives of both men. No children or nieces and nephews or other family members show up to care for them or to claim little items that the men have treasured.

Frank’s loneliness is tempered by a little dog named Daisy that Wendell found at the pound and gave to Frank.

Frank is shattered when the dog is torn to pieces in an accident in his garden. Wendell, crushed by Frank’s loss, begins a project to use his taxidermy skills to re-create Daisy from the parts remaining from the accident.

One of the novel’s most poignant moments comes when Frank discovers the incomplete project and, though failing steadily, he falls in love again with the half-stuffed dog.

As the novel closes, this reader was moved not so much by the problems Frank and Wendell had as gay people, but the challenge of finding meaning at the end of life.

Wendell, who always fixed the meals, has trouble adjusting to cooking for just himself when the bedridden Frank eats only nutrient shakes. He has too much time to fill and finds “the biggest danger of all is an empty space in the day. It’s easy, then, for the whole thing to break through and rush in and join the emptiness inside.”

“You just go on living,” Frank says. “You don’t have to have a reason.”

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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D.G. Martin

Contributing Columnist