Arno Michaels used to be a proud Wisconsin white supremacist. He had a “hate metal” band, Centurion, that sold some 20,000 CDs about killing blacks and Jews, and undoubtedly acted as a soundtrack to fear and torment. (It still does; there remains a following in Europe.) But last year Michaels started an organization called Life After Hate, a web mag preaching anti-violence, and wrote a book My Life After Hate. It’s part of his journey from hate leader — he organized 1988’s Skinfest, which attracted monsters from all over the country to Milwaukee — to, well, anti-hate leader. Now 40, Michaels has a lot of making up to do. Things changed in the 90s, when he saw his own daughter at day care playing with kids of all races. “I didn’t want her to be a victim,” he told the Shepherd-Express in February. “I thought about the parents of kids I’d beaten up. They loved their kids as much as I loved mine. It really hit me how horrible I’d been. I really regretted it.” Now, he says, “hate was justified by a claim of love for the white race.” That’s what he believed from around age 17 to 24, when he was, let’s say, an active racist. But white power isn’t limited to targeting non-whites. It extends to targeting non-straights. Speaking to the Wisconsin Gazette‘s Will Fellows, Michaels explains why anti-gay hate was simply part of the mix. It’s something he knows about all too well: his first arrest was for a gay bashing, and he’s personally inflicted plenty of pain on our community simply for being queer.
What was the status of gays in your hate hierarchy?
Homosexuality was seen as a sick perversion of the natural order, an unnatural and unhealthy lifestyle choice, a symptom of the sick society that Jews were scheming to bring about. White men and women who were recruited into homosexuality wouldn’t produce more white offspring, further reducing the already sputtering white birth rate. Like everything else we didn’t like, homosexuality was seen as part of the Jewish plot to take out the white race.
Along with a desire to clean up society, seeking out gay people to attack had something to do with making a statement about our own masculinity. Gay people were generally easy targets. Anytime we encountered them we would hurt them if we thought we could get away with it, sometimes even in broad daylight in crowded areas. I believe the first time I was arrested as a skinhead was for attempted gay-bashing. A friend and I were caught in the alley behind a gay bar, armed with axe handles.
In one incident, I broke a gay guy’s eye socket with my elbow when he tried to respond to the taunts of my buddies. I will be haunted by that man’s broken face till the day I die. Today, my outspoken opposition to discrimination against LGBT people is driven as much by that memory as by a zeal for human rights in a broader sense.
How did anti-gay hatred compare to race/ethnicity-based hatred?
Both types of hatred are rooted in a fear of difference. Skinheads, like other fundamentalists, seek uniformity. Just as we pointed out and belittled African lips, Asian eyes and other racial/ethnic differences, we were always vigilant for differences in sexuality. The slightest bit of femininity displayed by a male was grounds for assault.
As whites, we didn’t worry about having to prove how not-black we were. But it was always important to keep your distance from homosexuality. Any good white man worth a damn had to either have a steady girlfriend, wife or a steady wake of female conquests to prove how not-gay he was. For those guys who weren’t a hit with the ladies, being called a faggot was always a concern. They would try to establish their heterosexuality by bashing gay men, verbally and physically.
Did you ever get to know any gay people?
I did have an uncle who was gay, who was ostracized by my family. I saw him as a tormented and mean person, which I blamed on his homosexuality instead of on how he was treated because of who he was. Back then, I cited my uncle as my personal connection with the sickness of homosexuality. He died alone in a mental hospital, and my aunt later took her own life in response to the guilt she felt for betraying him. Today, I cite my uncle’s sad story as my personal connection with the sickness of intolerance.