WATCH STEVE HORNER'S eyes. They will betray him.
I notice it for the first time when we meet at his modest house in Apple Valley. The self-proclaimed "men's activist" is busy putting away the week's groceries, waiting for his teenage son to come home for a midday snack. I'm kicked back in a kitchen chair, my notebook safely out of reach. We're rapping about cars, the crazy cost-of-living, bar-hopping, and "babes"--just two guys killing time on a sticky summer day.
Then, as the testosterone level peaks, Horner dives into a deep reminiscence about Vietnam, where the Army taught him "how to be a man" at the tender age of 18. "I signed up for the draft in 1967 because I was looking for some action. And I got it," he says. "I mean, walking through downtown Saigon with a machine gun and a .45, you couldn't help but feel like Jesse James!"
On the surface, Horner's demeanor is perpetual: He's the quintessential pissed-off, red-blooded American male taken to the shameless extreme. He gestures maniacally, his deep, radio-trained voice booming with enthusiasm. "Sure there were some guys over there who lost their manners. And sure there was rage all around us. But war is hell and battle is a motherfucker!" he concludes with an easy laugh.
Then, without warning, his pupils float out of focus. The whites of his eyes, suddenly glistening, threaten to drip. Fighting back the emotional assault, he chuckles again and peers into an empty grocery bag at his feet. Seconds later he looks up. The clouds have passed--at least for now. "The problem with a lot of Vietnam vets is that the VA accommodates their pain," he says, recovering himself. "They're allowed to just wallow in their misery." Horner goes on to describe the divorce which rendered him a single father of two in 1984. He claims he's over it, claims he's ready to find a life-mate--provided she's anti-abortion, pro-spanking, and doesn't abuse the credit cards. But even now, his eyes take a trip. Denial defined.
Instead of wallowing in his pain, Horner has vowed to thrive on its wellspring. In 1993 he made local headlines after filing a complaint with the Minnesota Human Rights Department, claiming establishments that sponsored "Ladies' Nights" were committing gender discrimination. Two years later, the practice of offering free admission or lower drink prices to female bar patrons was banned. The publicity soothed his restless search for meaning like a tab of Prozac. Horner was hooked--a heavyweight champ oiled up for his next fight.
In February 1996, he filed a human rights complaint against Hooters Restaurant at the Mall of America after the manager refused to hire him as a waiter. When Dolores Fridge, then-deputy commissioner of the Human Rights Department, didn't respond favorably to the complaint, Horner began a campaign of harassment against her on the phone. "I was just trying to incite her to enforce the law," he says in his own defense. The Ramsey County District Court didn't see it that way, and Horner ended up with a 30-day sentence on three gross misdemeanors and one count of harassment. "The lawyer I hired wasn't worth a damn," Horner proclaims. "She just fell into line with the dyke prosecutor, who was nothing more than a bitch with balls."
Horner dubbed his time behind bars "The Steve Horner Self-Improvement Seminar." He learned Ebonics, studied computers, improved his basketball game, and redefined his life's mission. "I promised myself I would go with my conscience. Because I want to get to heaven and I want my boys to get to heaven. And I'll do whatever it takes to get us there." Task number one is to tirelessly promote his first book, Tackling Single Parenting, From a Man's Point of View. A political treatise disguised as a self-help memoir, the 286-page paperback is, like its author, a mishmash of conservative commentary and "common sense" advice. Chapter one, which opens with a section titled "In the Beginning," addresses the sore subject of dedication. Chapter two compares communicating with your kids to running a successful small business. The rest of the volume contains tips on everything from creating weekly menus to fighting the welfare state to doling out corporal punishment ("I'm a spanker, but I'm a lover," Horner tells me). The vanity press project even has its own warning label printed on the back jacket: "Tackling Single Parenting might anger readers who believe that increased government spending on social programs is a key ingredient for building and sustaining effective and productive families in America."
"Here's what I'm fighting," Horner tells me, his voice warming as his eyes lock mine in a glacial stare. "Women believe they were put here by God to be parents. And they aren't going to let us men tell them what to do. And I'm willing to say that's wrong, and as a result people say I'm angry. I'm not angry. I don't have a history of violence. I just come on strong and break people's comfort zones."
Last month, Horner broke the comfort zone of a female cop whom he met at a suburban park while she was out on a routine call. Memorizing the name on her badge, he proceeded to leave a rambling voice mail the next day, complimenting her good looks and asking for a date. The officer passed the recording on to Horner's female parole officer, who gave him "a good talking to."