…But Not in a Homosexual Way?

Unraveling the appeal of America’s favorite gay-baiter at Rudypalooza.

Virginia Beach is the kind of town where the Noid still surfs across the side of the Domino’s Pizza shop. The kind of town where the modern-rock station still has “Torn” in heavy rotation and still spins “Sex and Candy.” And “Lovefool.” It’s a place slightly out of step with the times—and proud of it.

The last Tuesday in August, the big story in the Virginian-Pilot, the local daily, was about a woman who was awarded $12.4 million after being maimed in a seaside monster-truck mishap. The day after, the big story was about fighter jets wearing out too fast, producing massive cost overruns. Virginia Beach is a no-nonsense, play-by-the-rules kind of town. It knows how things are supposed to work, and there’s hell to pay when they don’t measure up.

Yet Virginia Beach is a live-and-let-live kind of place, where the Grace Bible Church and the Hometown Heroes Sports Pub share a building and a parking lot. Where a guitarist in the band shell next to the Dairy Queen thanks a Baptist church for getting him back together so he can play the blues.

Virginia Beach is the hometown of Rudy Boesch.

On Aug. 29, Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf is awarding Rudy the key to the city. Though he came in third place on CBS’s Survivor, Rudy is accorded a victor’s welcome. A limousine wheels him into the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base; then a police chopper whirls him above a cheering crowd before depositing him outside the amphitheater. There is a speech by the mayor and some Q&A with the man of the hour, but by 6:30 p.m., Rudy is off-mike, surrounded by bodyguards, inaccessible even to some of the employees of the local CBS affiliate, a co-sponsor of the event that, in characteristically laggard local fashion, has been dubbed “Rudypalooza.”

I pull through a gate, past a sign saying “Threatcon Normal,” and park in a grass lot bordered by giant metal pipes that arc into inverted-U-shaped portals. Thanks to two traffic-snarling accidents between D.C. and Norfolk, I have missed the ceremony and will have to catch it later on the Web. But as Splender, a middling modern-rock quartet, revs the stragglers, I comb the crowd, looking for answers.

Myself, I’m a Gretchen man, and I never found anyone else to like after she was ejected by the Tagi alliance. Gretchen was competent and civil and demanded having her own way concerning the siting of the Pagong shelter only after allowing a tropical storm to prove her point. Rudy was curt and surly and acted as if he hadn’t changed his mind or learned anything since the Truman administration. I need someone to explain the Rudy mystique. We’ve all heard Sue’s speech weighing snake against rat, but what about crab?

Rudy gets lots of points from the locals for being a career military man. Ten-year-old Kyle O’Donnell, attired, like his folks, in a Bacardi Limón gimme cap, likes that Rudy is “a retired master chief, just like my dad….And that he was a Navy SEAL, and he’s a hero for our country, and he almost won Survivor.” Kyle’s father, Bill, who wears a T-shirt that says, “I Love You Rudy (But Not in a Homosexual Way),” claims that Rudy represents “good old modern values, the old hometown. You know, just tell it like it is, none of this politically correct crap.”

Rudy’s penchant for plain talk wins him a fair amount of political support. On an outdoor bulletin board near his house in the Alanton neighborhood, a smiley-face Mylar balloon bobs next to a poster reading “Rudy for President.” Constance Rich, 60, whose own “Rudy for President” placard and hand-lettered “Constance Loves Rudy” shirt helped make her a favorite of TV crews covering local final-episode parties, says, “[Y]ou’ll never wonder what the man is thinking, because he will tell you.” She even suggests that Rudy and Rich, the corporate trainer who won the game, team up for a White House attempt. “I would rather have a vice president who’s conniving like Rich, and gay,” she said, “than have a lying one who does not tell the truth.”

A chaplain-in-training with the Virginia Beach Police Department, Constance may love Rudy, but she’s got the hots for Rich. “I thought after he had his liposuction done on his waist when he was on David Letterman he looked a lot better naked….I thought he looked really good,” she says. “I wish I were gay; I’d go after him. You know, if I was a man, I’d be right on up there.”

Constance doesn’t think Rudy’s outspoken views on gays count against him, either: “The man was just being totally, bluntly honest. There are gay groups that will misinterpret what he said and say, ‘Oh, he’s against gay people.’ Well, no, that’s not what he said. He was being Funny Rudy….But the man really is not prejudiced. He was just being his Woody Allen-type-sense-of-humor self. I’m like that myself.”

I don’t point out that the castaway who best fits her demographic profile, as a sexagenarian cancer survivor, was the first to get the boot: Sonja.

Joan Yax, 26, cuts Rudy some slack for buddying up with Rich. “Why do I love Rudy?” she asks. “Because I like the fact that he was friends with Richard even though he didn’t agree with what Richard was all about.”

So is Rudy a bigot?

“No. I think he was socialized to be one, but he has a heart.”

I find only one Rudypalooza attendee who supports what Rudy said, as well as the way that he said it. Carolyn Cahill (“I’m a photographer; don’t ask me for what”) says, “I like the way he explained Richard. About him being queer. I like the way Rudy explained Richard’s gayness.”

How he explained it?

“Yeah, that he was queer. And to his buddies here and stuff. I like that.”

Cahill’s husband, Paul, a Teamster who says he’s in “distribution—I’d just leave it at that,” is more irked by Rich’s status as a capitalist tool. “I hated Rich, and I thought at the end he was the most hated man in America. I really believe that,” he says. “[H]e’s just the mirror image of corporate America. He’s what’s wrong with our country today.”

But Paul, who backed Colleen because she, like him, is from Maryland, is also quick to dump on Sue. “She was just rude, obnoxious, and she was a truck driver, definitely a truck driver,” he says.

Is this an appropriate comment for a Teamster to make?

“Gotta call it like it is. Truck drivers don’t have the best personality in the world.”

Sixty-nine-year-old Frances Seate, a retired civilian Navy employee who is helping her son out with his airbrushed T-shirt booth, never missed an episode: “I was even in the process of buying a car, and I told the man he had 15 minutes to give me the information I needed, ’cause I was gonna watch the Survivor. It was comin’ on!”

She thinks Rudy “probably is” prejudiced against Rich, but she admires both men. Rich is “a smart fellow, and he planned things, and it went his way,” she says. “But I was sorry Rudy didn’t win.” Seate says Rudy is “what the Navy’s all about. I mean, he’s straight-line Navy. He’s with it. And a lot of younger ones aren’t.”

Before I found out Rudypalooza was actually being staged on a Navy base, I had expected to encounter young, rowdy, drunk sailors running amok. Instead I found some young, rowdy, but well-behaved soldiers. Private 1st Class Rachel Proudfoot, 22, doesn’t want to talk about Rudy, though. She came to see Lucky Town, whose performance I have missed, but which I gather is absolutely the best band named after a Bruce Springsteen album in the greater Norfolk area. “Lucky Town rules!” Proudfoot yells, before giving a completely un-Rudyesque endorsement. “No matter what group you’re in—homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual—they rule.”

Charlie Forbes, 41, doesn’t view macho Rudy as having played an entirely manly role. “[Rudy] would always sit back and let the others argue and carry on and have little disputes, and he would cook the rice,” Forbes drawls, stirring the air with an imaginary spoon. “‘Cause, you know, the woman who feeds you good, that’s who the man’s going to. So he was taking a woman’s place in this whole crowd by feeding everybody and calming ’em down and making ’em happy….You go to the kitchen—’Mom, I want something to eat.’ She’s taking care of you. Mama needs something, you take care of Mama, ’cause, you know, when it’s suppertime, Mama’s got something ready.”

Proudfoot’s Army buddy, Travis Piper, 23, sees a conflict not between Rudy’s masculine image and feminine duties, but between his behavior and his desires: “I think he’s in the closet!”

So if the camera hadn’t been there, he and Rich might have struck something up?

“I think him and Gervase would have.” CP