Life imitates art for Isaiah Washington

Isaiah Washington knows better. And his denial that he used an anti-gay slur is an arrogant display of Washington’s hatred toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

And Washington’s public apology to the queer community for the derogatory comments he deliberately and repeatedly made about his costar T. R. Knight’s sexuality is a disingenuous statement to deflect attention away from his desperate effort to save his job.

Washington says in his apology, “I know the power of words, especially those that demean. I realize that by using one filled with disrespect, I have hurt more than T.R. and my colleagues. With one word, I’ve hurt everyone who has struggled for the respect so many of us take for granted.”

And he does know that power. Washington knows of both the psychological damage and the physical harm the word “faggot” engenders. And he knows it not only from empathizing as an African American where the n-word has been hurled at him, but he also knows of the harm the word “faggot” engenders from being called one.

Washington plays the handsome Dr. Preston Burke on the hit drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” but he has taken on many other roles. His most challenging and rewarding role was that of an African-American gay male in the context of the most dangerous environment one can be in – the company of homophobic black men.

In Spike Lee’s 1996 film “Get on the Bus,” Washington and Harry J. Lennix play a black gay couple (Kyle and Randall, respectively) in the midst of a breakup that gets played out in high homophobic drama in the cramped quarters of a group of African-American men taking a cross-country bus trip from Los Angeles to our nation’s capital in order to participate in Minister Louis Farrakhan’s historic Million Man March – a march that explicitly forbade women and gay men to attend.

Playing the role of a black gay Republican Gulf War veteran, Washington imparts to the group the violent acts of homophobia and racism he incurred on an ongoing basis from his fellow comrades, like being purposely shot at by his own platoon because of both his sexual orientation and race.

In October 2006, Washington got into fisticuffs with “Grey’s Anatomy” costar Patrick Dempsey by grabbing him by the throat and outing Knight, saying, “I’m not your little faggot like [T.R. Knight].” Washington plays a similar scene as Kyle in “Get On the Bus.”

As Kyle, Washington plays a multi-layered character who struggles with his own internalized homophobia while putting into check the outward display of homophobia he constantly incurs by one of the men on the bus. Taunted with anti-gay rants by co-star Andrí Braugher, who plays the character Flip in the film, Kyle’s manhood is questioned by Flip, and that leads to a fight.

But when Kyle wins the brawl, it does not alter Flip’s views about gays – it merely stops Flip while on the trip from publicly hurling any more anti-gay invectives at Kyle, learning that homophobia in the African-American community is as difficult to eradicate as racism in the larger dominant society.

Washington, in real life and in the theater, has been on both sides of this issue. And he knows his behavior is inexcusable: “I can neither defend nor explain my behavior. I can also no longer deny to myself that there are issues I obviously need to examine within my own soul, and I’ve asked for help. ¦ I know a mere apology will not end this, and I intend to let my future actions prove my sincerity.”

But not all in the queer community believe that Washington’s behavior requires treatment for anger management. Tammy Lynn Michaels, partner of lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge, knows Washington up close and personally as her neighbor whose children play with hers. She wrote on her blog Hollywood Farm Girl: “He is not a bad man ¦ I forgive his words, because truth be told I do not believe the word faggot lives in his heart.”

But Michaels is a lone voice. After all, 11,000 people have signed an online petition asking for Washington’s dismissal from “Grey’s Anatomy.” But that won’t happen because of complications that could arise both contractually with the show and racially with the African-American community, which unfortunately says Washington’s bad behavior is essentially allowed to go unchecked by merely issuing a public-relations apology.

And with more and more of these PR apologies, the words for tolerance may change, but the behavior won’t.

Washington has joined the growing number of celebrity hate-mongers like Mel Gibson, Ann Coulter, and Michael Richards, whose apologies are more about saving their own asses than caring about the souls they have harmed.

Published in In Newsweekly, February 1, 2007.

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