A Gay Lynching:
An atrocity for us all

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Oct. 24, 1998)

I don't think I've ever cried over the news. But when I read that Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, had died of injuries after being pistol-whipped and lashed to a fence post in the cold, I cried. Deeply.

The same day -- last Monday -- I also read an old acquaintance's obituary. Ed Shown, 44, had died a few days earlier from AIDS complications. I knew Eddie casually for more than 20 years and spent some of my most surreal evenings in the late '70s in his "fabulous" company. Like most people I know who have died from AIDS -- I've known hundreds -- Eddie had disappeared before death. He died in Tennessee at a relative's home.

The very same week, I received news from a panicky friend in New York whose combination of meds for AIDS -- the vaunted "cocktail" -- has stopped working. His doctors have told him there are no new drugs or combinations to try. The cocktail hour that has granted so many with HIV a reprieve appears to be ending. A new wave of death is on the way. So, I think my intense response to young Matthew's death was partly colored by the news about my friends. But my tears were partly for myself, too.

Most Americans have no idea what it means to live under the continual threat of violence on the basis of pure hatred and prejudice. The fence to which Matthew was lashed and left to die is an eerie reminder of the trees in which black men were lynched during the first half of this century.

Similarly, the vast majority of Americans can't imagine what it means when the physical expression of love is always a reminder of death. Whenever two gay men make love, the angel of death is present -- as the threat of infection with HIV, as ghosts of friends who have died from AIDS.

It is probably expecting far too much to ask the average heterosexual American to imagine the terrible isolation and fear that these twin threats impose on young gay people, who comprise as much as 10 percent of the population of their age group. Imagine being told day after day by your own parents, teachers, churches, the media, the adults you admire and your peers that your hidden love makes you a freak, that in fact you deserve rejection, even death by "God's punishment," for openly loving.

For years, of course, gay people responded by hiding completely in the so-called closet or by leading double lives (as husbands, as priests), cutting themselves off from their natural love, except perhaps for the occasional sexual encounter. (Thus gay love became entirely sexualized over time, arguably giving birth to a culture of so-called promiscuity.) Others killed themselves regularly -- and gay kids today kill themselves far more often than straight ones.

Matthew Shepard's mother, her child martyred to hatred, urged other parents in the world to embrace their children, whoever they are, with love. She was speaking directly to the terrible experience of all children who hide their natures from their parents because they are afraid of losing their love and support. Hearing this -- for so many of us were treated as monsters by our own mothers and fathers -- caused an enormous upwelling of grief among gay people. How many of us had no refuge in our own homes from the world's cruelty. A heterosexual person cannot begin to imagine what this is like, how it colors entire lifetimes with depression, the inclination to hide the truth and anticipation of rejection. It is a wound than never closes entirely.

Of course, tolerance of gay people has increased significantly in the last 20 years -- at least in urban areas. But the emerging gay culture, unfortunately, seems very often to contribute to the very source of its own problems. Mainly this is the result of trying too hard to join the mainstream.

Buried, for example, in the news stories about Matthew, were the facts that he was frail and somewhat effeminate. It would be no exaggeration to say that many gay men have become as hateful and abusive as the worst straight men about androgynous or effeminate gay men. Gay culture has become pathetically preoccupied with hypermasculine signifiers -- from military haircuts to muscles -- so that young men like Matthew have to not only combat the prejudice of straight people, but that of other gay men, too. This pseudo-macho gay culture rivals anything in straight life and, of course, is at heart an effort to overcome the identification of homosexuality with effeminacy. Notice how Matthew's actual nature, in his martyrdom, becomes forgotten by gay men.

Gay leaders are largely self-anointed through their willingness to be both open and political about their natures. But most of them continue to be privileged and severely wounded white men -- and embarrassingly unconscious about themselves. Thus they develop political and cultural agendas that seem completely irrelevant to the experience of most gay people -- like Andrew Sullivan's preoccupation with the right to marry and serve in the armed forces. Obviously, gay people have far more fundamental problems than being barred from the emulation of heterosexual marriage and serving in the armed forces, though both, of course, are deserved civil rights.

Gay men remain willfully dissociated from the various contexts of their struggle. Having been rejected so completely ourselves, we tend not to take responsibility for one another, either. Thus the outrageous tolerance of the increasing incidence of unsafe sex and the bizarre forgetting that AIDS is still a terminal disease. Moreover, gay political culture has lost its place in the larger struggle for human and civil rights. The slaughter of Matthew Shepard is no different from a lynching 50 years ago or the genocide in Bosnia or the violence of the Holocaust -- all of which were excused in the name of religion or morality. But the new gay conservative leaders insist on isolating the movement from traditional liberal movements (and, in all fairness, many African-American leaders have insisted on likewise distancing from the gay rights movement).

The majority of Americans are kind-hearted enough to regard the murder of Matthew Shepard as unthinkably monstrous. But his death is not an anomaly, as much as we'd like to think so. We all -- gay and straight -- are participants in the ongoing atrocity of denying people the freedom to be who they are and love whom they choose.

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