I, along with Gwyn Davidoff, recently directed The Laramie Project here at Olin. For those of you who didn’t come to see the show, it deals with the beating and death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in Laramie, Wyoming. This article is a highly abbreviated version of my director’s note. If you’d like to read the original note, please email me at nicholas.monje at gmail.com.
Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, but not a lot has changed. To be sure, some things have gotten better. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has ended, there’s same-sex marriage in six states, and legal protections are increasing. General attitudes have been improving, and positive representations of queer people are becoming more common. But for every success, there’s a Tennessee “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, or yet another state defining marriage as “one man, one woman” in their constitution. Queer-related crimes have fallen out of public attention, but still happen far too frequently. Not to mention the alarming rate of queer, especially teen, suicide. As a self-identified queer myself, I find it really difficult not to absorb all the hate that is out there in the world.
The impact of this hatred is clear. Suicide amongst queer-identified people is at tragic proportions. Accurate statistics are hard to find, and usually contested, but there’s no doubt that the numbers are staggering. In the media frenzy after the tragic suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, over a dozen news stories of youth succumbing to gay-related suicide came out that month alone, and, while focus shifted, they haven’t stopped. I will omit listing them here.
I do, however, wish to expand on a particular example. In Prayers for Bobby, Leroy Aarons explores the story of Bobby Griffith, a gay male who committed suicide at the age of 20. It was back in 1983, but it still rings true today.
It’s the story of a gay male, growing up in a deeply fundamentalist Christian household, surrounded from birth by condemnation of homosexuality. When he came out, his family responded by trying to get him to turn back to God, who would save his soul from this sexual deviation. They surrounded him with choice Bible verses. They waxed on about the unhappiness of his future as a gay male – a life of loneliness and exclusion. The effect was devastating. He spiraled further and further downward, into darker and darker places, filled with self-hatred.
He moved out and tried to make a new start, but could not find one. Finally, he jumped off a bridge onto a freeway overpass, into the path of a truck.
His family’s intentions were in the right place. They firmly believed that they were saving Bobby, that this was the best way they could love him. This is, perhaps, the most tragic part – the people who so deeply wounded Bobby were his loving family. They were not terrible people, but rather deeply caring, wonderful people.
I want to reiterate that point once more. Homophobic people are not monsters. They are as deeply human as the queer people they are persecuting. They firmly believe that they are doing the right thing, and are doing it out of their own sense of love. It is one of the most confounding and tragic aspects of the human condition.
To her credit, Bobby Griffith’s mother, Mary Griffith, had a change of heart after her son’s suicide. She went on a long spiritual journey, and after much soul-searching, she came to the conclusion that “[God] had not healed Bobby because there was nothing wrong with him.” She changed churches, to a gay-friendly denomination, and began telling her story to anyone who would listen. And people listened.
She has gone on to be a leader in organizations such as GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network). The impact of her work is inestimable, but it is safe to say that she has personally saved the lives of countless young men and women in this country, and around the world.
I want to believe that I don’t have to say this, but on the off-chance that it’ll make a difference, I feel somewhat obligated to. I know all too well how dangerously tenuous your hold on life can be, and how easy it is to hide that from those around you. If you need to talk, please reach out to someone. I’ve already included my email address, but keep in mind I am not a trained therapist or an emergency hotline. You can contact The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or Colony Care at (781) 431-1177.
With that, it’s time for me to make my proposal, and to not-so-humbly ask you, dear reader, to help me make the world a better place.
First, we need more awareness to these issues – to queer identities, to struggle, and to hatred. I’m not just talking about more publicity, though that’s certainly part of it. I want everybody to be more aware of the people around them. Be aware of what you’re saying and who might be listening. I don’t just mean in terms of queer sensibility; it’s far too easy to miss the humanity of the person right in front of you, whoever they are. Reach out to those around you, and try to understand them, all of them. Empathy is the most powerful tool we have to combat the hatred around us.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I want to see stronger, more complicated queer identities. It seems that the best we can ask for, as queer people, is indifference. It is not enough to tolerate, or even to accept, those different from ourselves. I want to see sexual and gender variance – and all other diversity – being celebrated.
Furthermore, I want to see more of that sexual and gender deviation. Labels like “gay” and “lesbian” are great for simplicity and forming communities, but are terrible representations of the actual range of possibilities. I want to see the whole range of human expression, and I want to see it everywhere. I want to see it on television, and in my friends, and in Congress, and as I walk down the street. It is not what’s the same between us that makes us human, it’s what’s different.