It was with a combination of gut-wrenching horror and a twinge of sad irony that I first heard about the brutal attack on Matthew Shepherd, a gay Wyoming college student last week. It was ironic because the subject of my November Oasis column was to be the unpleasant realities confronting gay youth today. My Exhibit A was to be these statistics, which I came across on CNN.com's web site a month back:
In the wake of the tragic event in Wyoming, I'm going to change my pre-arranged plan for November's article and focus on the atrocity from the Equality State.
A fact much overlooked in the current media feeding frenzy is that Matthew had already been attacked twice in recent weeks, both times for his sexual orientation. One might assume that Wyoming would be a less ideal place to be gay than, say, San Francisco or Montreal, but this grotesque event runs deeper. One could hope that Matthew's beating was the product of the two deranged minds of his attackers, who are now accused of also assaulting two young, straight Hispanic men earlier this month. The pictures released of these two animals certainly show two poster boys of the hate-crime underworld. But, unfortunately, the reality is that this event only underscores the widespread hate against homosexuals that seems to be becoming more visible now than ever it was in the last few years, when it was vainly assumed that America was had become more enlightened. No, the haters were just biding their time.
Take the following example: "Reverend" Jim Phelps, of Topeka, KS, is planning a "demonstration" at Matthew's funeral. What will he be demonstrating? That people who mourn a homosexual should be considered damned straight to hell? The hypocrisy of this is so blaringly obvious, I don't think that I need to work myself up going over it. Suffice it to say that I find the brand of religion preached by these sorts of men to be amusing at best and terrifying at worst. I wonder if they even understand the words of the Bible. They've become so focused on the details (or at least those that are favorable to their own brand of intolerance) that they've totally missed the point of God's word.
Unfortunately, the government of Wyoming is powerless to stop this outrageous attack on the Shepherd family, but Governor Geringer has put in his two cents worth, that Phelp's group is "just flat out not welcome. What we don't need is a bunch of wing nuts coming in." Regrettably, a group of extremists on the other side have promised Phelps an even more frosty reception. He has received at least seven death threats since his announcement that he would be attending the funeral service in Laramie.
While it may seem a nice thought, it is really terribly counter-productive to make such threats. Violence is never a reasonable answer to hatred. In this case, it has only given Phelps even more ammunition to use against us. "We are not going to tolerate any violence from these homosexuals," he says, "They are the most violent people in the world. Here they are talking about what happened to this poor boy, and they turn around and make death threats against us."
Lord, give me strength. Mr. Phelps, go home and let this "poor boy" rest in peace. He, and most other gay AND straight people in the world, are gentle, reasonable people. If you want to use your bully pulpit to decry viciousness, start with the monsters who killed Matt Shepard, or perhaps the government of Yugoslavia slaughtering hundreds of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. What the world does not need is another demagogue using his masses of easily manipulated (if probably well meaning) zombies to press his own agenda, in this case his own homophobia.
As for the four statistics above, they really shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone reading this, but to see these tragic facts put into such cold, ugly numbers is shocking nonetheless.
Twenty-five anti-gay remarks a day? Sounds conservative. The use of the word "fag" has become totally casual and really has ceased to offend me. In its over-use, it has been nearly stripped of all meaning, much like, for example, "dork." How many people even realize that "dork" means "penis?" But there are many darker sorts of comments made with shocking regularity. How many discussions of prison life lack mention, or even silent implication, of shower rape? Of course no straight man would ever do such a thing.
Someone who is tagged as gay never really has any chance of being taken as anything else ever again in small, insular towns like mine (and even Matthew Shepard's). The stereotype of the lisping queer is omnipresent. I've heard many, many terrible anti-gay comments made in my presence, because I'm not widely considered gay since I don't outwardly fit many of the narrow definitions of a gay guy. My own best friend from elementary school (though no longer in high school) said the other day, "I'm not homophobic, I'm just anti-gay." When I told him they were the same thing, his enlightened response was "I'm not afraid of them, I just don't like them." Notice the derision in his use of "them." His contemptuous force indicated he had no idea there were any gays in 100 miles of him. As long as this sort of banter is not considered as harmful as using the word "nigger" (which, even in my school with only 4 out of 1100 students black, would be an offense likely to result in suspension), there will be an atmosphere where acts like the one committed on Matthew Shepard will be silently condoned.
And look at the results: one in six teens are beaten so badly they require medical attention. These attacks are not normally as vicious as the one in Wyoming, and often may not even be reported to law enforcement, but they still hurt and should receive more widespread media attention than they do, because, as is being demonstrated now, even decent people who are not totally comfortable with homosexuality (and there are many, through no real fault of their own) are outraged by such barbarous atrocities.
The violence and hatred we are faced with has taken its toll: how many gay teens a year end their own lives or destroy their chances for future success by dropping out of school? Far too many. How tragic that a historically highly contributing segment of society is still being marginalized and mistreated, even in an era of supposed cultural enlightenment?
You are supposed to tie up an essay or article with a nice, neat, tidy recapitulation of your theme. But an issue as complex and harrowing as this can have no tidy summation. So I'll just leave you now with those thoughts. Until December.
Requiem aeternam dona eo, Domine. Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.