Boone, IA.—For Al White, shopping at the local Fareway supermarket wearing a slinky blue dress, makeup and "Tabu" perfume becomes a political statement.
The patrons of Fareway perhaps see it differently. There are the children's stares, the hostile look of the older man in the seed cap, the woman behind Al in the checkout line who is shaking her head.
"You're a conversation piece," says one woman as White grabs a jug of milk.
Boone may not be ready for Al White, but Al White says he's ready for Boone. He has launched a one-man campaign to challenge a small town's ideas about sexuality, discrimination and tolerance.
"The dress for me is a symbol," White says. "My dress is anger. My dress is outrage. My dress is rubbing manure in the noses of people who are so bigoted they can't see past their own noses."
A Boone native, White, 36, moved back from New York a year ago. Although he has been openly homosexual for years, White started wearing the dress about two months ago. The point of wearing women's clothing in public, White says, "is to expose people so they can grow. You can't reason with unreasonable people. Sometimes you have to shock them into reality."
The dress makes people confront their homophobia, White believes. And sometimes, it makes people confront White.
He has received attention from reporters for his attempts to form a gay support group in Boone, and he has been the victim of just about every kind of vandalism.
There are eggs and tomatoes thrown at his house, and there are the stones and pellets that have broken the windows, the decapitated teddy bear on the lawn, the spray-painted pentagrams and swastika on the driveway and the spray-painted message with an obscenity that tells him to leave Boone.
Then there's the hate mail that orders him to move away before he's captured and tortured, shot, knifed, or burned out of his house. Residents telephone him and threaten his life while screaming obscenities and making references to the Bible.
White has not been able to keep a job because of what he believes is discrimination because he is homosexual. He lives with his 82-year-old mother in a modest house surrounded by towering maples.
Catherine White has accepted her son, although the threats frighten her. Holding a rosary and sitting in a living room that is decorated in a mixture of crucifixes and pink triangles, she says, "I accept it. But I wish that it weren't. . . . I'd just like to have you normal. Well, I guess you're normal but just not typical."
But if anyone tried to harm her son, says the woman who is hooked up to an oxygen tank, "I'd darned well fight for you. I'm full-blooded Irish."
In a town where many people don't lock their doors, White has installed lock upon lock and even had an electric fence around his yard until the city ordered him to remove it.
If you walk up and down Boone's main street and ask most young males what they think of Al White, you're likely to get a sort of strangled sigh of controlled anger.
One of these men is Gordon Holland, 27, a worker at Hawkeye Laundry. What he and his friend say about White, says Holland, "mostly can't be printed."
"This guy has a right to live his life, but it seems he goes a little overboard," says Holland. "Does the guy enjoy wearing a dress and looking like an idiot?"
Julie Edwards, 17, a student at Boone High School, says that at school, "They don't like it at all, especially the guys." When asked why 'especially the guys,' Edwards says simply, "Because he's a guy."
Edwards thinks the uproar is "because Boone is just a small town and it's weird to have something like this happen here."
A visiting couple from Denver were disbelieving as they strolled down Story Street: "A guy in a dress? Here in Boone, Iowa? Now if we were in Denver, I wouldn't give it a second thought. But Boone?"
Connie Iles of Ogden was shopping along Story Street. "I think if he would have kept his mouth shut he wouldn't have a problem," she says. "Your normal gays, I think, they just keep to themselves."
John Oatman, a retired railroad worker who was sitting on a bench with his 4-year-old grandson, enjoying the balmy fall weather, says he thinks White "has a right to his opinion and I have a right to mine."
Oatman says White will never change people's minds. But he thinks the vandalism and threats are excessive.
"I don't think they should be destructive," he says of people who disagree with White.
Some people in Boone have been supportive, says White. When his car was not working, an elderly neighbor drove White to the courthouse to pay his taxes. A high school student appeared on television, his face and voice electronically scrambled, to say he objected to the vandalism and threats. White gets occasional notes of support and encouragement from others in Boone.
But it is the threatening letters that haunt him. One anonymous writer claims that while living in Arizona, he would lure a gay man to go with him into the desert, torture and kill him after making him "pray to God to make him straight like normal guys."
The letter adds, "I figure you'll be gone by Christmas, either dead or alive it's your choice. I've been around your house and I'll have no problem taking you & the other queers out."
It's signed, "A Concerned Citizen of Boone."
White says such threats don't deter him. He will continue to wear the dress.
It's not always easy. It's time-consuming to put on makeup, false eyelashes, and coordinating his outfits, he says.
But he says he has to do what he's doing. "I believe that someone here has to do this type of thing to generate enough thinking, to make a difference."
Al White holds a message he received telling him to leave Boone. On the vandalized driveway of his home are spray painted pentagrams and a swastika as well as a painted obscene message.
Although this Des Moines Register article was published in 1991, a bit late for this history, many of us remember Al White from the 1970s when he could frequently be found socializing at Ames parties.