THE STATE OF HATE.
"In the past, gay bashings have not gotten as much press coverage as crimes against other minority groups," says Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "But things started to change with Shepard, a middle-class college kid Americans could really relate to, and Gaither was also a very sympathetic victim. The media finally seems to get it--these are terrible crimes that deserve careful scrutiny."
Indeed, after Charles Monroe Butler Jr. and Steven Eric Mullins confessed to killing Gaither because he allegedly made an unwanted sexual advance to them, the murder was front-page news for a week. From the Birmingham [Ala.] Post-Herald to CNN, journalists recounted in unusual detail the perpetrators' antigay motive and asked, as Brendan Lemon does in the following commentary, what exactly drives this extreme hatred.
Coming amid skyrocketing levels of hate-inspired violence, the increased coverage is a welcome silver lining. Since the Shepard murder in October of last year, there have been at least 11 more antigay killings [see chart on page 29]. According to a survey by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, the results of which won't be released until April 6, reports of physical attacks on gay men and lesbians in 1998 increased significantly over the 1,081 reported the year before. (The survey includes only attacks reported to the 16 gay and lesbian antiviolence projects that collect data for the coalition.) On March 12 a bipartisan group of members of Congress reintroduced the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would give federal authorities the power to investigate and prosecute crimes that are based on sexual orientation. As The Advocate found in the report beginning on page 32, many of the nation's schools are training grounds for the kind violence targeted by this bill.
Media watchers say the brutality apparent in the Shepard and Gaither murders contributed to the press's taking them far more seriously than in the past. "What seems to be arousing the sympathy and interest of the public is the extraordinary sexual sadism of these killings," says Levin, coauthor of Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed. Adds Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based organization that monitors hate groups: "In ordinary crimes people are beaten or shot. That doesn't seem to be enough for these killers of homosexuals. They have to break every bone in their face or stab them 30 times. I'm not sure Americans understood the depths of hatred out there before they heard about these crimes."
Much of the press coverage juxtaposed the sadism of the killers with the gentleness of the victim. Almost every press report noted that the 39-year-old Gaither cared for his disabled parents, who say they did not know their son was gay, and sang in the choir of the local Baptist church. Gaither's parents "knew him as the kindest of their four boys, the one who read his big illustrated Bible every night before going to bed, who never came home late on those rare occasions when he did go with friends to one of the local bars (all of them straight)," The New York Times reported in a March 6 front-page story. On the same day, the Birmingham Post-Herald described him as a "loving son, a valued employee, and a well-liked presence."
That idyllic depiction of a gay man in rural America is still relatively rare. "This is a big step forward for gay people in the rural South," says David W. White, state coordinator for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Alabama. "So many times what people hear about gay people in the Bible Belt is that we are nothing short of monsters and sexual perverts who creep around in the night looking for children. It's good for everyone to know that Billy Jack was well liked in a small town and that a lot of people in town accepted him for who he was."
Every small advance in lesbian and gay civil rights seems to be followed by brutal news of antigay violence and homophobic murders such as Matthew Shepard's and Billy Jack Gaither's. Journalist BRENDAN LEMON examines the many roots of this homophobic aggression and the prospects for its elimination.
IN ONE OF HIS THANKFULLY LESS WORLD-WEARY ESSAYS, "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star," Gore Vidal tells of an exchange between Christopher Isherwood and a young Jewish movie producer. The conversation had turned to the Holocaust, and Isherwood--sensing the need perhaps to deepen the drift of the discussion--pointed out that in addition to all his other horrors, Hitler had exterminated 600,000 homosexuals. "But," the other man shot back, "Hitler killed 6 million Jews." To which Isherwood replied: "What are you? In real estate?"
I thought of Vidal's anecdote when I first watched the news reports of Matthew Shepard's killing last autumn. A TV commentator said to represent "the gay perspective" dwelled on "the uniquely virulent contempt directed toward homosexuals in America," and while outwardly I was giving my assent, my inner censor was wagging its finger. As any politician or public relations expert will attest, you don't elicit wide sympathy by stressing your differences from the general public; you do it by emphasizing commonalities. History, as Isherwood was teaching us, is not an ouch contest, pitting one group's degree of oppression against another's, and the more we try to make it one, the more we will alienate people from our struggle.
In the same essay Vidal makes an observation about that struggle that gives one pause. "Same-sexers," he maintains, "would think little or nothing at all about their preference if society ignored it." If we were not hated, in other words, we would have no group identity. We would be no more worthy of comment than those who are left-handed or have green eyes.
Before deciding if Vidal is right, however, we must first examine a few realities about Matthew Shepard's America. For whatever the common roots of minority-directed aggression, in at least one fundamental respect gay men and lesbians do suffer aggression uniquely in this country: As the only group that bases its identity on the right to affection, we have become objects of hate. Hatred has a direct, painfully ironic meaning for us: Our desire to love incites someone else's desire to hate. It's urgent, therefore, that we develop a deeper understanding of hatred, not only how it has been used against us but how the subject might affect us in the future.
If our understanding of hatred has been relatively superficial in the past, then we have been little different from the culture at large. As the great French scholar Lucien Febvre remarked 60 years ago, we don't even have a history of hate. Everything from moral philosophy to VH1's "Top 10 Countdown" scrutinizes the ways of love, but almost no one, except as a Marilyn Manson-like stunt, examines hate. Yet in the wake of Matthew Shepard's and Billy Jack Gaither's killings, the most urgent matter before us is, How do we explain that emotion?
If I use the word hate rather than homophobia or contempt or aggression, it is only because it flames the discussion in the starkest outlines. The word is also at the heart of the most topical reason for the debate: hate-crimes legislation. Proponents maintain that hate-crimes laws are deterrents, telegraphing a message that violent bigotry is not just a crime against a single person but a crime against an entire group. Opponents point out that bias is difficult to prove in court, that such laws pose troubling civil liberties issues, and that their enforcement can cause as much harm as good to the stipulated group.
Whatever one's position on hate-crimes laws, the renewal of the debate is an encouraging development. It does not, however, take us to the heart of gay-directed aggression. Passing such measures is little more than a Band-Aid on an already inflicted wound. It treats the symptom rather than the cause. The discussion must travel elsewhere.
Three justifications for hatred come into play in virtually every case--not only of homophobic violence but also of most instances of any bias aggression: the construction of a convenient Other, the doctrine of manliness, and visibility.
Nothing in life seems more natural than the ease with which humans assert superiority over a collective Other; as Gordon Allport put it in his 1967 study The Nature of Prejudice, the "easiest idea to sell anyone is that he is better than someone else." Such superiority allows us the most delightful of feelings: that we are right. It shifts the focus from one's own defects to those of another. It creates an often useful solidarity of Us (our family or minority or country) against them. Athenians are better than Spartans, capitalists trump communists, and straights beat gays. Such opposing groups clash with especial rigor when categories and definitions are shifting. If, as Nietzsche once remarked, we can find words only for what is already dying in our hearts, then it should be no surprise that the terms faggot and queer should rain down most peltingly when sexual categories have been crumbling quickly.
For explanation of what drives hatred of the Other, however, Nietzsche is much less illuminating than Shakespeare. For the dramatist, as Harold Bloom recently observed, aggression is rooted in ambivalence: Self-hatred is diverted into hatred of the Other, and the Other is associated with lost possibilities of the self. Thus, for example, The Merchant of Venice's Antonio, the clearest homosexual character created by the Bard, directs his self-hatred against Shylock the Jew. Or, to select the more contemporary examples, Shepard's or Gaither's accused killers, abhorring their own situation (economic or affective), transform their disgust into violence against the gay Other.
Both sets of accused killers represent something essential about hatred, and not just in their statistical profile (young white male): They seem case studies in ambivalence. They say they loathe faggots, yet there they are, hanging with the homos, even belting brewskis. Their behavior would seem to provide such a quintessential case of latent homosexuality that one is tempted to view it all too classically. Myself, I am tempted to linger on the suggestion made to me privately by the writer Joan Didion that the Shepard killing may have sprung from one of the guy's being sweet on the other, an affection that could be activated sexually only by the participation of a third party.
The second rationale for hating gays--insufficient manliness--is much more applicable to some of us than is the category of Other. After all, African-Americans may still experience hate, but in the main proving grounds of masculinity--the battlefield and the ball field--they have overwhelmingly shown their mettle. At the same time, the loss of those proving grounds as exclusively male preserves has been seen by some commentators--Randy Shilts, Susan Faludi--as one motivation for expressions of hatred. (Envy may also play a part here; newcomers may be reaping greater benefits than their predecessors.) Like blacks and women in general, gay people are seen as usurpers of time-honored tradition. We must be kept in our place: through the strong arm of the law or the strong arms of more informal enforcers.
But I am not sure that the struggles carried out on the parading ground or the playing field are at the heart of the hatred and gender issue. After all, most of us neither serve in the military nor suit up for Sunday goal-line combat. We do walk streets where people call us "dyke" or "faggot" and sometimes assault us. To participate in a gay bashing--and most assaults are undertaken by two or more people, usually young men--is to prove to oneself and to one's peer group that one is sufficiently male. Yet this Psych 101 commonplace doesn't take us very far into the root of modern-day aggression against us. We already know that in our culture it is still painfully true that a young man cements his manhood by drinking, swearing, fornicating--and picking on the sissy boy. These traditions have not changed appreciably for ages.
Indeed, the worry that society is becoming too "feminine" is not new either; the fear of "manly erosion" was already a constant topic in the 19th century. This nervousness persists into our own day, when the relation between femininity and homophobia is still crucial. As the most widely despised "minority" in this society, the only group who suffer violence almost exclusively at the hands of those not from their own group, women may be the most instructive mantra for a meditation on hatred. While I cannot dwell on the topic, I must point out that just as the hatred of gay men cannot be wholly divorced from the position of men in the culture, so cannot hatred of lesbians be separated from women's overall status.
While fear of the Other and worries about masculinity are not particularly new engines of hatred against gay people, the third rationale for homophobia is comparatively recent: our visibility. Coming out--as we have been urged to do for three decades now--makes us proud but also identifiable and thus more easily subject to attack. The emergence from the closet would appear to have put up the chief lightning rod for homo hatred. One need only walk a city street for confirmation. What more central sign is there of visibility and its risk of disapproval than holding hands in public? For a gay person, a simple display of public affection can be freighted with deliberation, even in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where there are definite geographies of desire. And if, bucking convention, we take each others' hands to strike a political note, we choose defiance when we might have preferred tenderness. (Of course, lovers of any stripe can touch off resentment with open embracing. In Rainer W. Fassbinder's film The Marriage of Maria Braun, an elderly woman at a party clucks her disgust at an intertwinning straight couple, and a nearby reveler comments, "Most happy people look indecent when one is unhappy.")
It is not, I suspect, the minor moments associated with coming out that most stir up trouble. It is, rather, our speaking up loudly that has stirred up so much ire (or ambivalence) toward us. The mere sight of a pumped-up gym queen in West Hollywood or a motorcycle-riding dyke in Northampton does not engender much vehemence; amusement, more likely. But an eloquent black lesbian puncturing some avowed homophobe's hate balloons, matching aggression with aggression, can be mighty threatening indeed to the keepers of the culture. For we used to be targets primarily after dark; now--what progress!--we are attacked during business hours too: in the courts, in Congress, on talk shows. We are vilified even when our liberties are supposedly being protected. Last November's Georgia state supreme court ruling upholding adults' right to private, consensual sodomy (gay or straight) contained in the majority opinion the phrase "many believe that acts of sodomy, even those involving consenting adults, are morally reprehensible." At the dawn of a new millennium, what other group's existence continues to be so condescended to by the authorities?
When I read the account of the Georgia case online, I felt a strengthening surge of indignation, a rather perverse pride in belonging to a group so viciously singled out. What a bracing sense of specialness visibility has provided us! Who else in America symbolically suffers as much as we do? The indignation we feel because of that scorn provides us with an important part of our drive. Like Flaubert in one of his letters to George Sand, I suspect that "the day my indignation subsides, I shall fall in a little heap, like a puppet with broken strings." The danger here is that we may fall in love with our pain. To avoid that, we need to explore further some of the ways in which hatred against us is concentrated, to see how we might force the future, rather than have it handed to us.
To begin: Hatred is not likely to fall away completely in our lifetime, even though the change in attitudes toward us has been very real and in some ways rapid. Hatred is the result of conditioning built up over millennia, and institutional change is damnably slow. In our impatience with this tempo, we often fail to recognize why so many people supporting homophobic institutions are reluctant to reform: Nothing visceral compels them to do so. No matter how rational our pleas, when we ask people not to hate us, we are engaging them not at the level of logic but of feeling, where rationality must fight to hold sway.
And why is hatred so tenacious? Because, socially speaking, it is rooted in unfamiliarity. As an ethicist might put it, moral sentiments by nature evolved to be selective. That is, people whom I know--members of my tribe or caste or sexual orientation--are good and worthy of protection. People whom I don't are bad and deserving of repulsion. In this sense, whatever the short-term risks of increased visibility, the more we come out and make the fearful folk aware of our delightful ordinariness, the better chance we have of continuing to dissolve interpersonal animosity. Hatred is also, unfortunately, grounded in Judeo-Christian religious teaching. Virtually all the messages that gay-positive educators strive to undo with children and adult offenders emanate from religious institutions. Yet while the efforts of gay Christians and Jews to lessen homophobia by reforming religious practice are worthy of respect, in most cases they are misguided, even futile. Since I agree with William James that most people are attracted to religion out of feeling rather than allegiance to philosophical or theological constructs and since, as I've said, feelings shift more out of social familiarity than out of a change in doctrine, I don't see that trying to reform churches is a valuable approach to hatred--other than making members of such institutions realize that the people in the next pew are gay. Even for gay activists who are expert at deflating religious hate (Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bawer), jousts with religious homophobes too often dissolve into hysterical, high-decibel, scripture-swapping matches. Any fool can learn to exploit the Bible, that well-stocked and miscellaneous treasure house. Much better to concentrate on changing secular law, which, whatever its bases in theology, is at least nominally based on reason and respect rather than emotion and belief.
The continued adherence to Judeo-Christian institutions--even those that prize charity--will not reduce the aggression trained on gay people. A belief that one is "the chosen" or a member of "the one true church" sets up by its nature the dichotomy of us versus them--the DNA of hatred. Even theologians who preach a more inclusive approach--the Unitarian types who, as my father used to say, believe in, at most, one God--rely on a comforting transcendentalism but require us to check our empirical intellect at the door. To any gay person afraid to surrender conventional religious allegiance in order to lessen homophobia, I would say: Find a new source of spirituality. Gay people are fully capable of developing meaningful narrative, ritual, and ethical principles without resorting to the Judeo-Christian institutions that need to die if we are to advance. In its understanding of what makes up love and hate and even in its attempts to promote the former, religion remains mired in the Iron Age.
If I am stumping for a more scientific worldview, it is in part because I think that such an approach might help build the intellectual basis to diffuse hatred in the new century. As scientific knowledge increases, our current ways of explaining hatred--as the product of fear or displaced erotic drives ("homosexual panic")--will be enriched. Many of us, I suspect, already ascribe extreme expressions of hate in part to an abnormal biochemical makeup of the perpetrator. What if, once the human genome is fully mapped, we discover that hate has a hereditary basis as well? Might it not then be possible to subject serious hate offenders to a kind of reparative gene therapy, as we are about to do with sufferers of such diseases as cystic fibrosis?
Of course, this scenario assumes that more detailed knowledge of genetics would favor the expression of homosexual behavior. The prospect that genes might be altered to lessen or even curtail homosexuality entirely seems just as real. Excuse me if I don't find that picture altogether chilling. For one thing, if we were thrust two centuries hence into a world where there was no presence or even thought of homosexuality, the question of gay hatred would be moot. For another, I doubt that such a brave new world will come to pass. It's true that social engineers might argue in favor of making humans less sexually variable, but it's also possible, as Edward O. Wilson put it in his 1998 book Consilience, that we would "choose to diversify in talent and temperament, aiming for varied personal excellence and thus the creation of communities of specialists able to work together at higher levels of productivity." Gay people could be seen to be more valuable than they are today.
There is one other respect in which genetic advances might affect our status as an ostracized group. I am thinking of the artificial womb, a technology not so far off as it may sound. If reproduction becomes entirely synthetic, it will weaken the argument that the kind of sex to be most valued in society is that which potentially creates another human--the basis of many Judeo-Christian strictures against homosexuality. If procreation were the province of the lab and not the bedroom, then sex could be viewed exclusively as a pleasure, an art, a form of communication. The gender of your partner would no longer be a cause for either approval or aggression.
The potential for technological change does not, of course, let us off the hook as crusaders against homophobia We cannot just throw up our hands and consider everything inevitable. Even if science provides new tools to fight hatred, activists must continue to press the reasons why gay men and lesbians should be a valued part of the mix. It is imperative, in other words, that we influence the ethical choices that are in the offing.
Let's imagine that efforts to combat hatred are successful. Wouldn't we, as I suggested earlier in this essay, have sacrificed the core of gay identity? Perhaps. But even if that optimistic scenario occurred, the wake we left behind would have been considerable. Maybe we could start to define ourselves by something more durable than extreme emotions. There would be a kind of freedom in that. We might find, to paraphrase Louisa May Alcott, that respect was a better husband to us than was love--or hate.
RELATED ARTICLE: HATE BY NUMBERS
42 STATES HAVE HATE-CRIMES LAWS OF SOME KIND
21 STATES, PLUS THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, HAVE LAWS THAT SPECIFY SEXUAL ORIENTATION AS A CATEGORY FOR PROTECTION
8 STATES, LARGELY IN THE SOUTH AND SOUTHWEST DO NOT HAVE ANY HATE-CRIMES LEGISLATION
11 GAY AND TRANSGENDERED PEOPLE THAT WE KNOW OF HAVE DIED SINCE MATTHEW SHEPARD'S MURDER LAST OCTOBER, IN CHIMES IN WHICH ANTIGAY BIAS IS SUSPECTED, IN ADDITION TO BILLY JACK GAITHER, THE VICTIMS INCLUDE:
* NATHAN NOVER, OWOSSO, MICH,: Strangled to death, November 25
* DONALD FULLER, A.K.A. LAURYN PAGE, AUSTIN, TEX,: Died from multiple stab wounds, January 8
* KEVIN TRYALS AND LAARON MORRIS, GALVESTON, TEX.: Shot to death and then burned in their car, January 17
* TROY HOSKINS, NEW YORK CITY: Found stabbed to death in his apartment, January 21
* JOHN CRUMLEY, BIRMINGHAM, ALA,: Found stabbed to death in his home in February
* STEVE DWAYNE GARCIA, HOUSTON: Shot to death, February 6
* UNIDENTIFIED TRANSGENDERED PERSON, HOUSTON: Found shot to death in a motel parking lot, February 24
* HENRY EDWARD NORTHINGTON, RICHMOND, VA.: Beheaded, March 1
* THE REV, THOMAS E. ORTE, HARTFORD, CONN,: Found stabbed to death in his apartment, March 4
Information as of March 12, 1999 Source for hate-crimes laws statistics: Human Rights Campaign
Lemon is working on a book examining hate in America.
?? Find more on this topic at www.advocate.com
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||eleven more antigay killings since the Matthew Shepard murder in October 1998|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Apr 13, 1999|
|Previous Article:||the Buzz.|
|Next Article:||HOSTILE CLASSROOMS.|