In 1992, I was working in a prominent Law School in North Carolina. I was a young, “out” gay man, active with different local LGBT groups. Clinton was elected and I was optimistic about the future.
But, there was Rush Limbaugh.
Rush first came to prominence in 1988 when his firebrand conservative talk show was brought to WABC in New York from Sacramento by ABC Radio President Edward McLaughlin. McLaughlin sensed he had a “hit” on his hands and he certainly did.
This was a period when the AM radio dial wasn’t filled with all conservative talk, all the time. Stations were broadcasting a wide range of formats - music, all news, talk, sports - and, in North Carolina, you could still tune around your dial and find plenty of local programming.
By 1992, Rush had become a sensation in the radio industry. WABC started syndicating his daily call-in show around the country and Rush’s ratings went through the roof. Roger Ailes, the guy who gave us FoxNews, even arranged for Rush to have a half-hour syndicated television show.
Limbaugh had already gained a kind of infamy in television when he guest-hosted Pat Sajak’s unsuccessful late-night talk show. Activists from ACT-UP in the audience heckled Rush so badly that they had to clear the studio.
Why was ACT-UP protesting Rush?
Well, in the early 90s, Rush was regularly ridiculing LGBTs on his program. He viewed gay sexuality as “unhygienic” and called the AIDS virus “Rock Hudson’s disease”. He ran an ongoing “AIDS Update” on his show, mocking individuals that had recently died of HIV.
Most of my volunteer work at that time was wrapped up in the AIDS crisis, fundraising for AIDS causes, doing safe sex education in gay bars, and lending support to the many friends I saw who were HIV positive - or dying - from the disease.
My particular job at the Law School at that time was a low-level clerical position. But it did have me going all around the building all day and it gave me a chance to see some of the ongoing rancor among the faculty.
There were three or four faculty that were huge fans of Rush - middle-aged and older white guys that were tenured faculty. One arranged his class schedule so he could listen to Rush each day in his office, turned way up so everyone else could hear. The group would regularly stop and talk or have lunch together to gloat over the latest insults Rush was dishing out. Interacting with them each day, and seeing their fixation on whatever hate was spewing out of their radio, I started thinking of them as the "Rush Gang".
The “culture wars” had come to the Law School. As some pushed for more women and minorities on the faculty and staff, the “Rush Gang” wouldn't stand for it. They would find any excuse to not hire an African-American faculty member or make sure female faculty were kept non-tenured and “in their place”, stuck with the grunt work of intro classes and university committees.
This was during the period when Justice Brennan retired and President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to take his place on the court. The confirmation hearings, with Anita Hill’s accusations of Thomas’s sexual harassment, heated up Rush’s rhetoric on Rush about “Femi-Nazi” “women’s libbers”, and Rush’s daily diatribes just egged on the “Rush Gang” even more, parroting what they heard on the radio.
The faculty, after a heated debate, voted to have gender-neutral restrooms. The building was older and some of the female faculty and staff had to go to different floors of the building just to use the restroom.
The older faculty member who was blaring Rush’s broadcast in his office responded to the new restroom order by making a habit of leaving the doors of the restroom unlocked or slightly ajar to annoy the female faculty and staffers. Then he and the other members of the "Rush Gang" would gossip and giggle about it, like naughty schoolboys.
One of the big Rush fans involved in all this was my boss.
I spent months listening to him rant about “queers” and “dirty” AIDS carriers and constantly prattle on about Black “criminals”, "ghetto Blacks", Ebonics, and “lazy Blacks”. I saw him regularly call a junior female faculty member who worked for him a “femi-Nazi” and, if she was disturbed by something, asking if she was “just being emotional” or “having her period”. I saw him berate, belittle and physically threaten a bookish, younger male staffer who he perceived as “weak” and who he called “limp-wristed”. And I saw him attempt to get the female junior faculty member to fire a lesbian student worker because she “wasn’t feminine enough”.
Those were just the brief highlights. His behavior grew worse as time went by. He would disappear for hours on end and no one knew where he was, then he would rush back into the office, raging mad over the slightest little thing. He regularly exploded at staff meetings, eventually getting to the point where he was slamming doors or throwing chairs. Once, in a fit of anger over whiteboards, he physically ripped one of the offending boards off the wall and stormed out of a meeting. He was constantly paranoid, talking about the female faculty and staff that were “out to get him”.
That was about the time of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which brought out even more of the most hideous racial animus not only from Rush, but from my boss and the other faculty in the “Rush Gang” at the Law School.
Eventually, most of the staff only talked to my boss when they had to and made sure someone else was present when they did. At this point, his behavior had gotten so hostile that I didn’t speak to him at all - if I had a question, I submitted it via email and asked for written instructions on what he wanted.
Finally, I just couldn’t put up with it anymore. I went to the central Human Resources office at the university. The older HR director, who would retire within a few months, simply shrugged and said, “He has tenure. We can’t do anything about it.”
I started getting random phone calls at home from someone who sounded to me like the wife of one of the Law School’s “Gang of Rush”, telling me I was going to hell for being a homosexual. Twice, I found my tires slashed on my pickup in the Law School parking lot. My parents even got anonymous letters about their “perverted son”.
Finally, I went to see a lawyer. I explained the situation and, as I expected, he told me that not much could be done since neither North Carolina nor the university had any polices against discrimination against gays. But, he did agree to write a letter to the university’s Human Resources director, noting that I might have a case over emotional distress and fear of bodily harm due to a hostile workplace environment.
In a few weeks, I was moved by HR to a different job in another unit on campus. My boss - and the other staff and faculty working for him - remained where they were, without much changing for them.
A couple of years later, a woman took my place and was appalled by what she saw. Her threatening to sue finally got some kind of action. My old boss was put aside, replaced by the female junior faculty member he had harassed for so long. He had the one or two classes he had taught taken away from him and he wasn’t allowed to supervise any staff or students ever again. He was dumped into an office and given a salary to basically do nothing, as the university waited for him to just go away.
A few years ago, I heard that my old boss had died of a heart attack.
By now, most all of the “Rush Gang” passed away. Most of the faculty at the Law School from that time have moved on to other jobs or retired, replaced by a more diverse group with more women and minorities. After I left the university, around 2000, the institution’s faculty passed an an LGBT anti-discrimination policy. I heard the old “Rush Gang” were some of the most vocal - and angry - opponents to the proposal in university faculty meetings.
I wonder if the women and minorities working in the Law School now know what kind of environment it was just over 25 years ago.
I happened to talk with a couple of people that knew my boss. One was his ex-wife. Both noted that a couple of years before I started working for him, they noticed a marked change in his behavior. Before, he had been professional, garrulous, and even tolerant. (My old boss was even a fan of Bob Dylan and much of the left-wing protest music of the 1960s.) But, over a couple of years, he grew cold and angry, always lashing out at some imagined enemies that were trying to “change things” or “take away” opportunities from him. That’s when his wife divorced him. Both she and the other person that knew him wondered if he had some kind of minor stroke or neurological problem that changed his personality.
Personally, I think it was Rush Limbaugh that exacerbated and contributed to any problems my old boss had. He and the other faculty members of the “Rush Gang” had all this repressed rage they had been bottling up inside for years. Rush just gave a voice to that rage, hate, and paranoia. His daily diatribes normalized all the insults, bigotry, and cruelty. Rush made it “ok” for a group of lawyers and faculty members to see expressing this racism and bigotry openly - and acting on these impulses to harm their "enemies" - as “normal” professional behavior.
Rush probably set back the Law School a good decade in attracting and keeping many diverse, top legal minds from getting any kind of faculty position. Without Rush, the prejudices and bigotry of the “Rush Gang” would have been there, but I have to wonder if their rhetoric and complete disregard for their colleagues would have reached the same levels of animus and direct, damaging action against individuals.
Rush gave them permission to break normal societal pressures that often keep personal cruelty in check in our day-to-day lives and communities. The right-wing talkers that followed him, along with the politicians he spawned, just continued that promotion of inter-personal hate and cruelty.
Now, Rush is dead. Conservatives will mourn him. I will recall him as a blight on American society.
Rush, the network executives and station owners who made a fortune off of him, and the parade of imitators that followed, basically killed AM radio as a medium. Tune around the AM band today, and it’s an almost unlistenable parade of right-wing talkers, all beamed in by satellite to local stations with little or no local programming - transmitters with cash registers attached to them, as some radio aficionados refer to them.
Rage and anger sells advertising.
Somehow, I survived the 1990s and Rush Limbaugh. I went on to work as a professional in a job I like with a talented, diverse group of colleagues that support each other. Around my workplace and community in North Carolina, I see young, energized people who care about LGBTQ rights. I see a community of progressives and liberals who have a refreshed dedication to racial and social justice after the BLM protests and four appalling years of Donald Trump and a GOP, grown from the seeds that Rush Limbaugh sowed.
Many of my friends weren't lucky enough to survive Most of the people I knew in the 1990s are gone now, many of them because of AIDS and the inaction on research, funding, and prevention directly caused by Rush and people like him. Others, beaten down by years of disappointment and harassment, have retreated into more private lives, away from activism or politics.
Rush - and the network executives and station owners that enabled his hate - made a fortune off of their death and suffering.
Tonight, I mourn for the friends I have lost and think about the work that still needs to be done.
I do not mourn for Rush Limbaugh.