By Patricia Nell Warren
As collective grief and outrage fill the gay media after the Wyoming murder, I am hoping for some collective honesty about a deadly social habit of ours that contrib-uted to Shepard's murder. It is one that makes our community vulnerable to hate crime. I'm referring to our habit of trusting strangers too much. Getting into cars with strangers, or letting strangers into our own cars, or our homes, in the course of our hot pursuit of sex or desperate yearning for a mate.
During the sexual revolution of the 1970s, newly liberated straight women had their wake-up call -- they discovered the risks of taking the wrong guy home from a singles bar. A best-selling book of the time, "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," spotlighted the horrors of being murdered by a first date -- it really hammered the lesson home. Who knows how many women's lives that book saved?
Today we badly need a Goodbar wake-up on the gay social scene. After many decades of American-style gaybashing, "stranger danger" is a caution that we should be teaching as a routine matter -- especially to our young people. But we seldom do. It appears that nobody got the message to a gentle idealistic college student named Matthew Shepard. So (according to reports) he trustingly, innocently got into a vehicle with two strangers he met at a gay bar, and he rode off with them. After all, they said they were gay. All gay people are good people, right?
Whatever Matthew was looking for --sex or simply an evening of fun he didn't find it, because he got pistol-whipped and left for dead.
If only some gay organization or adult friend could have convinced Matthew, saying, "Hey, man, don't ever go off with strangers. You might run into Mr. Good-bar."
We face threats from three types of strangers -- straight ones, gay ones, and the sneaky ones who say they're gay so we drop our guard and think they're good peo-ple. Why do so many of us automatically jump to the conclusion that anyone who is gay -- or alleges they are gay -- can be trusted?
It's true that many hate crimes -- murders, assaults, robberies, rapes -- are gratui-tous. You're walking down the street or across the campus with your girlfriend or boyfriend, minding your own business, and BAM. The violence comes at you out of the blue.
But many crimes happen to gay people because we unwittingly make ourselves vulnerable to attack. We trustingly, willingly -- sometimes even avidly -- invite strangers into our cars, our homes, our bodies. How does this disregard for personal safety happen so easily with us?
Since the '50s and '60s, many of us revolted against straight "morality," against rules taught by our parents. This included our parents' no-nos about strangers, which sounded so repressive to rebels of the Stonewall era. But in the heat of on-going revolt, some of us go overboard and open our lives to a stranger who has violent intentions. We have a deeper need to trust this stranger than straight people do -- all our lives, we were taught to mistrust ourselves, to mistrust our intuitions about others. We tend to be more lonely, desperate and over-anxious for sex and/or companionship. In addition, getting into a car with strangers, or inviting strangers into your own car, is an American folkway...and a gay folkway as well. The cute hustler, the handsome boy looking for a daddy, steps into the shiny BMW and rides away to his destiny.
To override all the barriers built by a homophobic culture, our media have ro-manticized hot encounters with strangers. This is especially true with media tar-geting men -- books, films, magazines, videos, pornography, personal ads, the In-ternet. Even with so much disease around, the media still push the idea that hot sex with strangers is innocent and fun and adventurous and risk-free (provided you wear a condom, of course). And often it is (if you wear that condom). But some-times it's not (even if you do wear a condom). When a man's hormones are pumping and he's hot for the hunt, he can get so reckless that he forgets not only health dangers, but social dangers as well. He can ignore his intuition -- that subtle inner chill that warns even the animals of danger ahead. A horse won't put his hoofs on an unsafe bridge. But a gay man can meet Jeffrey Dahmer at a bar, and recklessly go right home with him.
Sometimes the violent stranger is a sex worker. The older gay man who can't get sex any other way will risk paying a hustler -- and wind up paying with his life, or his health and wealth and peace of mind. He is left dead, or battered and crippled, and robbed. Was the risk worth it? Only he can tell us. And not every male sex worker is gay. Some are straight. Some harbor a homophobic contempt for their gay johns, that may flash out in a violent criminal act. Indeed, some hustlers choose sex work because it gives instant access to trust -- to a john's car, credit cards, home, valuables, bank account information. You don't have to pick locks or break windows, or even use a gun.
Some gay men can leap into car-rides, S & M and other risky scenarios for hun-dreds and thousands of times, without harm. They even get off on the risk. But they are riding their luck. Gamblers who push their luck with the dice can wind up losing everything -- and so can the gay man who pushes his social luck. Men who cruise public parks argue that they have a right to do this -- especially the closeted ones who feel they can't have a sex life any other way. But they are asking for their right to meet the Angel of Death -- a straight gay-basher looking for a victim, or a closet case looking for a sex partner to vent his self-hatred on. Those who do meet that dark angel in the bushes might -- in their last moments of consciousness -- wish they had been more careful.
Misplaced trust also makes gay men more vulnerable to undercover police stings.
In my work with young people, I often hear horror stories about teen trust of strangers. Newly out and naive, our young people often learn the hard way that going into a stranger's car or home puts them at risk of date rape. One 18-year-old Asian student hesitantly told me how he met a good-looking 20-something jock on Santa Monica Boulevard one evening, and merrily rode off in the guy's Land Rover. Next thing the student knew, they were stopped in a dark parking lot and the good-looking jock was raping him. When it was over, the jock dumped him in an alley behind a club.
Our teens learn to risk date rape from our over-romanticized media, and from watching their romance-ridden elders in real-life action. Adults have major flings with strangers, so it must be okay, right? Adults who don't value their own lives set a horrible bad example for young people! The same risk can face gay teens who make sex dates with strangers over the Internet. Ditto the teens who use the Net to set up living arrangements with adult strangers -- they are desperate to leave home and be independent, and don't want to live on the street. Street-wise kids learn to date in packs, or set up housekeeping in groups, with people they know and can truly trust -- finding safety in numbers.
Often I ask myself what percentage of LGBT youth get raped every year simply because they trusted some smooth-talking stranger. Statistics are hard to get -- few gay boys or lesbian girls or transgendered teens will talk about being raped. As with rapes of straight women, few rapes of our teens get reported to police. A victim of date rape drugs like "roofies" may not even remember what happened.
We do a great deal to educate our youth about safer sex -- but we do little to teach them that danger isn't always a disease. I wish that every free condom and every pamphlet saying DON'T HAVE UNSAFE SEX were accompanied by warnings like: DON'T GO OFF ALONE WITH 2 OR MORE STRANGERS...or DON'T LET STRANGERS NEAR YOUR DRINK.
Nor are men the only victims. We women have our own problems with misplaced trust. It's true that lesbians and bisexual women experience fewer violent crimes involving trust of strangers. With us, it's more a question of how trusting we are on the second date -- or when we move in together so fast! A few years ago, I met an attractive charismatic woman in her 30s. She was definitely my type -- butch, out-doorsy. But some things -- her possessiveness, drinking, personality change while drunk -- raised a red flag on the first date. Having survived a heterosexual marriage with a violent possessive man, I sensed danger. It turned out that this woman had a history of arrests and jail time for beating girlfriends. So I showed her the door -- out of my life.
Perhaps I will be criticized for talking about this issue. Maybe I'll be told that I'm anti-sex -- that I'm trying to put a chill on true love, on the rich and full sex life that we all deserve. Hey, I'm not anti-sex or anti-love at all. What I am is anti-murder, anti-assault, anti-robbery, anti-rape. I am 100 percent in favor of surviving a social encounter, to love and have sex another day. If this means waiting a few weeks till you know someone better, or doing a background check if something doesn't seem right, I say do it.
We need to use our gaydar better, to identify threats to personal safety, instead of just squandering this wonderful power on locating new sources of hot fun sex. "Gaydar" is just a fancy word for intuition as used by homosexuals. Intuition is what keeps every animal ahead of the fangs and claws of killer animals. If animals can survive successfully using their intuition, then humans can too. If your brand-new acquaintance at the party makes the tiniest ominous blip on your gaydar screen, he or she may not be someone you want to know better! There is no hot fun sex in a coma, or the morgue.
Why is it that so many in the community won't acknowledge the dangers of out- of-control trust? Why this reluctance to publicize the dark and vulnerable side of our social life? Is it partly because so much money is riding on that romantic myth of hot sex with strangers? Massive financial investments into the gay video indus-try? Publications that depend on personal ads for extra cash? Sex clubs and circuit parties? All these -- and others -- ride the lure of strangers.
Matthew Shepard's death has struck a national nerve, both in our community and in the mainstream. Maybe his killers will face the death penalty. Maybe a whole raft of federal, state and local hate-crime laws will now be passed. But all the pen-alties and laws in the world will not protect us if we don't protect ourselves. The murder of this Wyoming student is the wake-up call -- the "Looking for Mr. Good-bar" of our time. Matthew Shepard's story will save some lives.