Practically overnight, two weeks ago, America went from being perceived as an international oral-sex joke to one of the planet’s biggest showplaces of homo hate. Oh, our bias for all-around bigotry had been cooking in the headlines for some time. From the alleged police brutalizing of Abner Louima to the death-by-dragging of James Byrd in Texas (followed by the Labor Day float mocking Byrd’s plight) to the alarming rise in antigay and anti-Semitic expression, the stage had been set for ritualized loathing of the Other. The rage, the sickness, the violent streak in our country had reared its head, and it confirmed itself as our hideous star attraction on October 6, when 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was robbed, tied to a fence, and viciously killed. (Aaron J. McKinney and Russell A. Henderson, who reportedly singled Shepard out for being gay, stand accused of the crime.) Monica who?
The Laramie, Wyoming, act has again shed a spotlight on the ugliness of irrational contempt, the bizarre allure of picking on societal outcasts because they’re easy targets and available scapegoats. But it’s also a reminder that, while hate seems to be more popular than ever, perhaps it’s just more visible. Like Presidential indiscretions, prejudice-based attacks have always existed, but a lot of times they weren’t reported because officials and the media didn’t know—or care—about them. Gay-bash victims rarely came forward to say, “They beat me because I’m queer,” and the perpetrators knew they could count on them not to do so, the silence paving the way for more and more thrill assaults. Since that’s changed to some extent—though there are still lots of holdouts—Shepard’s alleged killers apparently made sure he couldn’t come forward, leaving it to McKinney’s girlfriend, Kristen Price, to re-create the tragedy for the public when cornered. Interestingly, Price emphasized the gay-bash element, claiming that McKinney had been outraged by “the thought of a gay guy approaching him and humiliating him” at a hangout—the old he-shouldn’t-have-foisted-his-lifestyle alibi.
The McKinney gang might have actually drummed up this scenario as some kind of twisted justification. (In Wyoming, where there are no hate crime laws, it couldn’t hurt.) But if Price’s account is actually true, the fury ignited in McKinney by Shepard’s “flirting” calls to mind the way Scott Amedure’s confession of love for Jonathan Schmitz on The Jenny Jones Show in ’95 sparked Amedure’s grisly murder. In both cases, the overtures were received as unbearably “humiliating” gestures, prompting one to wonder just how secure these thin-skinned thugs are in their own manhood. Shouldn’t it be the rebuffed person who’s mortified, not the guy saying “No, thanks”? And in Shepard’s case, what exactly constituted flirting, anyway? Saying, “Hi, my name’s Matt” (though Price, in her secondhand version, insisted Shepard threw himself on McKinney)?
Raging insecurity’s not the only catalyst for the anger at the heart of this heartlessness. Shepard’s alleged killers are high-school dropouts who were clearly battling the most prevalent illness among young gay bashers: a sense of powerlessness. School didn’t work out for them, and with their low-paying jobs and uncertain futures, the real world was probably seeming fairly hopeless too. And bad happenings fueled the fire. As The New York Times reported, McKinney’s mother died about five years ago, and—apparently being a professional blamer who needs to point fingers and aim punches—McKinney once yelled at her doctor in a bar for causing her death. The police say he and Henderson even picked a fight with two Hispanics as Shepard lay crucified and dying on the outskirts of town—though it somehow fails to comfort me to know that they’re equal-opportunity haters.
Lately, hate crimes aren’t just a reaction against gays’ advances in bars, but against gays’ advances in society, and the way the radical right has twisted those accomplishments as rewards for degeneracy. The more visible and protected we get, the more the righties are threatened, as if every forward step by gays in mass culture will mean an end to straight sitcoms. Goaded by the Trent Lotts, folks start longing for the good old days when you could treat gays like second-class citizens without any opposition. And what a few years ago percolated as a blame against the queer community for spreading AIDS—combined with a Bible-thumping, you-deserved-it mentality—has morphed into ire at gays for having survived the plague and carried on while continuing to demand special (read equal) rights. As their rage boils up, these full-time haters adhere to Jerry Springer’s message: the answer to every disagreement is to poke your opponent’s eyes out.
Last year, the National Coalition of Anti Violence Programs said it attributed an alarming rise in antigay violence “to the unprecedented national attention given to the ‘coming out’ of actress Ellen DeGeneres and her television character.” The right condemned her, and the backlash devolved into a monosyllabic concept: bash. Ellen’s inspiring openness—which has no doubt saved lives—has even made some gay people uncomfortable, like Sandra Bernhard, who’s been romping through the media pegging Ellen and Anne Heche’s relationship as “shtick”—as if her own sexual evasions haven’t been exactly that. And columnist Liz Smith recently wrote that Heche revealed too much about her relationship with Ellen in an interview, and this kind of honesty could spell the end of gossip!
Meanwhile, minorities attack each other even more often than they do themselves, never noticing the irony inherent in trying to rise out of oppression by persecuting other downtrodden people. The doctrine of hatemonger Khallid Abdul Muhammad—who riles up African Americans with his distaste for Jews and gays—reminds us how one group can target another in the name of communal pride. I’m surprised Giuliani didn’t welcome the Million Youth March for this very reason. (I guess his racism temporarily eclipsed his homophobia.) The mayor has certainly been astoundingly silent about the rise in local gay-bashing reports, as New York becomes a place where the supposed fringe is fringier and more disposable than ever. In the last few months, while living in my delusion that the gay life here is a carefree one, I’ve gotten no less than three “faggots” and one “maricón“—and believe me, I wasn’t flirting. Plus I recently found myself in an altercation with a woman at a bookstore who volunteered that gays are offensive because they choose to be that way—as if anyone would elect to enter her homo phobic world.
Perhaps the most startling statement to come out of this whole horrorshow was made by Shepard’s own bereaved father, Dennis. According to Wyoming governor Jim Geringer, Dennis insisted through his grief, “We should not use Matt to further an agenda,” nor should we “rush into just passing all kinds of new hate-crimes laws.” I think Matthew would be screaming otherwise.