Point Austin: Special Treatment

Sexual hysteria alive and well at the Batcave

Point Austin
On Sunday morning, the Statesman, which has done some enterprising reporting in recent years on mental health issues, devoted much space to a couple of sympathetic profiles. Ricardo Gándara delivered a sentimental but engaging portrait ("Laughing at the Enemy") of longtime local radio personality Cactus Pryor, who at 85 suffers from Alzheimer's disease but still manages to golf regularly and write commentaries for KLBJ-AM. And Andrea Ball provided yet another sobering tale ("Burden of Care Falling on Jails, Emergency Rooms") of the consequences of the dismal shortage of mental health care in Central Texas. Ball profiled a young man, Daniel Whitehead, suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and drug addic­tion, who has been buffeted among emergency rooms and jail and the Austin State Hospital while the authorities tried to determine what to do with him. Currently at rest in the State Hospital, Whitehead still faces criminal charges and tries not to contemplate what will happen to him should he be returned to prison, where he has been both beaten by fellow inmates and received substandard medical care.

The thrust of Ball's piece was that adequate mental health care is in extremely short supply – a shortage exacerbated since a Texas Depart­ment of State Health Services edict last fall against "overuse" of the State Hospital – and that in its absence, police become the mental health officers of first and last resort. The inevitable result is that the indigent mentally ill are more likely to land in prison than in treatment.

How curious then, that only a couple of weeks earlier, the Statesman front page featured a very different sort of mental health story, in which a young man with a record quite similar to that of Whitehead was portrayed in a much more sinister criminal light, and an attempt to help him – to procure health care for him instead of prison – was portrayed as the improper wielding of political influence. The difference? The young man in question, Brian Eager, had at the time been the companion of former state representative and current candidate for Travis Co. tax assessor-collector Glen Maxey, of whom the Statesman editorial board disapproves. Ergo, Maxey's attempted intervention with the Travis Co. district attorney on Eager's behalf raised grave editorial questions: "whether an elected official should have been attempting to influence the prosecution of a loved one, or whether [Maxey] had the opportunity simply by virtue of his office" ("Earle: Maxey Sought Leniency for Companion," by Marty Toohey, Jan. 26).

The Eager story also allowed a series of eyebrow-raising references to Maxey's "long-term intimate relationship" with Eager – as if it's news to anybody that Maxey (for a decade the "only openly gay Texas legislator") is a gay man.

Asking for Help

The legitimate kernel of this 8-year-old story is this: In 2000, Eager was facing criminal charges for cocaine possession and driving while intoxicated but was severely mentally ill; as his companion and caretaker ("I had become essentially his only family," Maxey says), Maxey approached Earle and asked for leniency and treatment of some kind. Earle refused – he says he doesn't recall the specific details of the conversation but that Maxey was requesting "special treatment" that he simply could not grant, especially given the public danger of any additional acting out (e.g., DWIs) by Eager.

I've since confirmed with Earle his published version, which is terse but straightforward: Maxey asked; Earle refused. Maxey acknowledges he might have been overzealous in pleading for Eager ("I was a legislator, working on health care," he told me, "and even I couldn't find help for him"), but both men agree that Earle turned him down flat. (The conversation was private, but not secret, and there's no way to determine, eight years later, how the story eventually meandered to the Statesman.)

That's it. It would not be news at all, even old news, if Maxey weren't running for office. Readers and voters can decide for themselves if attempting to intervene on behalf of a loved one in trouble is admirable, questionable – or, rather, disqualifies one for public office. The Statesman – and whoever fed the Statesman this warmed-over baloney – clearly believes the latter, and thus the troubled muttering over "whether an elected official should have been attempting to influence the prosecution of a loved one."

Sexual Inquisition

But the real subtext of the Statesman's clumsy exercise in homophobia is signaled by the "long-term intimate relationship" in the lead and the repeated references to Maxey's sexual relationship with Eager. According to Maxey, the two men had initially been lovers, but the sex ended when Eager moved into Maxey's home and then became ill – and Maxey began spending many thousands of dollars on the uninsured Eager's health care. (In 2003, when Maxey retired from the Legislature, his personal predicament was widely known, and a central motivation was frankly financial.) Toohey's story is based in large part on an "interview" that took place during what was officially Maxey's endorsement meeting with the Statesman editorial board, and its highlight (as Maxey tells it) was Editor Rich Oppel's insistent question, "Did you have sex with him?" The Statesman wanted to make really sure its readers got that explicit answer.

Just what part of "gay" does the Statesman editorial board not understand? Would they have asked such questions if the mentally ill Eager were instead an ex-girlfriend, or an ex-wife? Would they have proclaimed in tsk-tsking undertones that the two had engaged in a "long-term intimate relationship"? Somehow I doubt it. They would have confined themselves to wondering sanctimoniously, but decorously, if an elected official should ever intercede with a prosecutor on behalf of a troubled family member.

Also last Sunday, in an essay on Statesman endorsements (under the aggrandizing headline "Opinions power the great American political process"), Oppel wrote, "A bright line separates our news staff, directed by Managing Editor Fred Zipp, and our editorial board, headed by Editorial Page Editor Arnold Garcia." I guess during Maxey's meeting with the board, Oppel sat on one side of that bright line, and Toohey sat on the other, and the twain never quite met. They just exchanged notes.

I sincerely hope that no one on the Statesman editorial board ever has a mentally ill family member or one in serious trouble with the law. Should that ever happen, I also hope that editorialist won't let his or her fear of eventual exposure, or professional reticence, or simple moral vanity, stand in the way of doing whatever is legally possible – even desperate pleas for mercy – to save a loved one from disaster.

Yet if that should in fact happen to a few more prominent people in this town, maybe this region and state will eventually begin to get serious about providing some sort of treatment for mental illness – something better than malign neglect, police intervention, incarceration, and public shame.

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Austin American-Statesmanmental health care, Glen Maxey, Austin American-Statesman, Ronnie Earle, Rich Oppel

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