by Kirk Read
There are bullet holes in my history. Backstreet Cafe was the first gay bar I ever went to. I was 16. I got turned away from the Park, the gay club down the street, but they let me stay at Backstreet. I drank Sprite and played pool. The bartender called me "Sugar" and ran her fingers through my hair like a mother picking ticks. I felt like I'd come home. Over the years, I've gone to Backstreet whenever I visited my mother in nearby Lexington. It was always full of working class folks, far from the plastic ghettos of urban gay epicenters. I used to sit at the bar and write for hours.
On September 23, Ronald Gay went into a Roanoke watering hole and asked where the gay bar was. He got directions, then showed off a handgun and said he was going to "waste some faggots." The bartender called 911. Gay went to Backstreet, a few blocks down Salem Avenue. When he saw two men hugging, he pulled out his gun and shot seven people. Danny Lee Overstreet, a 43 year-old telephone operator, was killed. One woman's in critical condition and five others were hospitalized.
Ronald Gay, the man arrested in the shooting, is a sad case. According to reports, he has five ex-wives and he's heard faggot jokes all his life. When he introduces himself to people, he quickly adds that he's not gay. His house just burned down. His last ex-wife says he was on Prozac and Clonipin, an anti-anxiety med. He was a hard drinker who never recovered from picking up body parts in Vietnam. He was on military disability and should have been institutionalized a long time ago.
Calling this a hate crime really misses the point. This was an act of despair. This was a man with an intimate understanding of antigay prejudice. He lashed out after years of abuse. I've harbored daydreams about opening fire on the kids who called me faggot in school, the people who pushed me into lockers and made me too scared to take a shower after gym. Ronald Gay lived out that dark fantasy. But, in a sense, he took out that anger on his own people. It's as sad as the L.A. Riots.
Ronald Gay, like it or not, was a member of the gay community. He's one of countless non-gay people who have been taunted all their lives either because of their name or because people think they're gay. Unfortunately, he turned his rage on the very people who could have understood that.
Folks are rallying in Roanoke, going to church together, holding vigils, and starting victim relief funds. This is the same town where men are banding together to fight police entrapment arrests in Wasena Park. It's the same town where over 1,000 people came together last week for a Gay Pride celebration. It's the same town that was the closest thing to civilization for me when I was growing up.
People are using this tragedy as a springboard for a hate crimes law, which seems like the obvious thing to do. I'm delighted to see people organizing politically, but Virginia is a long way off from passing a hate crimes bill. It hasn't even made it out of committee yet.
Virginia is a law and order kind of state. It's easier to make an example of individuals than it is for the state to really address how kids are taught to be violent homophobes at home and at school. What about the teachers who look the other way when kids get beaten at school? What about the principals who hear the word "faggot" and let it go because boys will be boys? Adding jail time doesn't begin to address the fact that adults teach children to hate.
The purpose of hate crimes laws is to raise awareness with lawmakers and constituents, but they don't prevent violence. The sort of desperation involved in opening fire on a room full of strangers isn't quelled by goodwill statutes. Virginia is a death penalty state. If Ronald Gay wasn't deterred by the imminence of an electric chair, why would he think twice because of 18 more months in prison? Getting additional penalties because the victim is gay seems to be the same kind of special rights crap that we're always accused of peddling. A bullet is a bullet is a bullet.
What we really need here need is education. Kids need to learn early that if they use the word "faggot" or act violently they'll get suspended or expelled. Kids need solid sex education that tells the truth about gay people. Kids need to be taught that prejudice is wrong. If we're going to make a dent in this problem, we have to boldly go where this movement is most terrified of going: into elementary schools. We have to recruit kids to be kind to one another.
The media won't make a martyr out of Danny Lee Overstreet because he wasn't as camera friendly as Matthew Shepard. We will forget his name just as we've forgotten the name of Henry Edward Northington, a homeless man who was beheaded in Virginia, just as we've forgotten the names of dozens of transgender people whose stories barely make it into the press. We forget their names. But we must never, ever forget what happened here.
When I was 16, I walked into Backstreet Cafe for the first time. it was a sanctuary for me. I felt relieved. I felt giddy with excitement. I felt safe among my people. Seven speeding bullets have reminded me just how fragile safety is.
Kirk Read lives in Northern California. He can be found at www.temenos.net/kirkread and on GayBC.com