Dear Matt,

This past Wednesday, October 12th marked eighteen years since your (Matthew Shepard’s) death. If you were alive today, you’d be 39 years old (nearly 40)—an eternity in “gay-years”! Just kidding, I don’t really believe in that. But, maybe you would have, and hopefully you would have had someone, say a friend or a husband/boyfriend/partner, to tell you that you’re ridiculous for believing in such silly things.

In honor of the anniversary of your tragedy, I bought and read The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project. I’m sure you know, Matt, that this company wrote a play about the Laramie community in the midst of your murder through interviews and found text related to the incident. I mean, there are a lot of books and movies about it, but I decided to learn more about you and your legacy by reading this play. I had never read it or seen it produced, but I hear it’s pretty famous. I also hear that you’ve done theater before (as any good gay boy does), and I wonder if you would have liked it, if, somehow, you could have seen a play like it when you were alive. Perhaps, maybe if what happened to you had happened to somebody else? I don’t know.

matt

I liked the play. I think it’s honest. I think without all the corny sentimental overlay music that they use in the HBO film version (which I watched), it would be quite objective, and yet personal. Yes, the creators/interviewers of the play are liberal and gay, but I think they really wanted to capture the truth of the citizens of Laramie, both the non-gay-affirming individuals and the affirming. People believe what they believe, and they are entitled to that. Prejudice exists and we need to be honest about it before we can do anything to help combat it. How religion and spirituality ties into all of it is complex and difficult to see clearly, but even within religion, prejudice exists. Hate exists in us all.

Was this a hate crime, Matt? That’s kind of the question of it all, isn’t it. The Right says that the gay community had an agenda and blew the whole incident out of proportion. They said that you were also involved in drugs, and that could have played into your murder as well. Some Laramie residents wondered if the case would have reached national headlines at all if you had not been gay. I mean, in my opinion, it probably would not have. But does that mean that the gay community sensationalized it? I don’t think that either.

It’s strange to think about: “Why was I murdered?” Taking for granted that departed souls can think, that is. Like any other incident that has ever taken place, it’s not like there’s one, sole “reason” or “purpose” or “motive” for every thing that we do. Especially if your murder wasn’t premeditated—who knows what series of events, words, and feelings led to that violence that led to the end of your life? We have testimonies from people at the bar and confessions from your murderers, but what else? Nothing really, besides the evidence: your beaten, tortured, unrecognizable body left tied to a fence.

If it wasn’t a hate crime, if your being gay didn’t play any part, would there have been such a degree of violence in this “robbery”? Violence that left you, I repeat, unrecognizable? Violence that could be compared to a car crash at 80 miles per hour? I wish you were here to tell us, Matt, to tell us for sure. To tell us if they spit on you as they left, or how many times they may or may not have called you a “faggot.”

Fear creates prejudice, prejudice breeds hate, and hate leads to violence. Human actions are not a result of a singular thought or feeling, such as “I’m going to kill this man because he’s a fag.” Human actions result from a mixture of thoughts, feelings, pressures, lessons, views, and perceptions. While it is impossible (and improbable) to say that your sexuality was the sole reason for your murder, Matt, it is also inconceivable that the fear, prejudice, and hate that underlies a homophobic society were not even a tinge responsibility for influencing the actions of the men (who were your age) who murdered you. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

I’m just trying to say, well, I don’t know. It’s strange and corny to be writing you this letter, but I am trying to connect my experience to yours. While it’s not fair to make you a martyr, since on the one hand you’re just an innocent victim, it’s also impossible to ignore you and what happened to you because—well, you could have been me and I, you. I could have been born in Wyoming, I could have gone to school in Laramie if my circumstances had been different. The same forces that contributed to your murder eighteen years ago could also kill me today. And I can’t forget that, I refuse to forget that.

You didn’t choose to be murdered. You didn’t do anything worth being celebrated other than being who you are. You may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But none of that really matters because it did happen, and it was you it happened to. So, I’m going to thank you. I guess that’s why I’m writing this.

Thank you, Matt. For representing our community and for giving us a voice. Your death created and contributed to a dialogue that continues to this day for gay dignity and visibility, and the vulnerability of gay youth. I read that you were interested in pursuing political science in undergrad and were heading towards human rights advocacy. While your destiny is not the path you envisioned or wanted, I hope you are able to still feel pride for what has been done in your name, for the many good things that have been and will continue to be accomplished. For this, you have become a martyr.

Thank you.

Love,
Josh

A Coming Out Story

Happy National Coming Out Day y’all!

So, coming out is a long and lengthy process for a lot of LGBT individuals. It’s not always like there’s one, singular, grand moment where you magnificently walk outside your closet door and you officially declare, “I’m Out™.” You have different social circles such as your friends, family, and co-workers. When’s the best time to come out to each one? And of course it also depends on the individual friend/family member/co-worker. Perhaps one friend has more traditional views, or one co-worker has said homophobic comments before? There’s a lot to consider when coming out, and some LGBT individuals are more particular than others on who knows and who doesn’t.

My coming out was one of these rather drawn-out affairs, and I’m not even sure if it’s completely over yet. It’s been nearly eight years since my first year of high school when I started to confide in my friends (and then it spread rather quickly in those circles). For my family, my full coming out has been more recent, and generally more anxiety-producing. For co-workers, it all depends on the situation and the job itself.

20160608_030639000_iosBut, I’ve decided not to focus on the full, all-encompassing story of my coming out, because that would take all day (and trigger many different emotions). I would, however, like to tell you about my coming out to one particular person, and a very important one at that: my brother Kevin. He was the first person I told in my family, and one of the first people I told in general.

My brother and I weren’t always close. We had some rough patches when he was in high school, and there was also a sizable seven-year age difference between us. As I entered high school he moved back home and both the physical proximity as well as the overlap in our (artsy-fartsy) personal interests brought us closer.

I remember it like it was yesterday, even though it was 2009. Kevin was in his room on his computer, working on something art-related (my brother’s an artist, you should check him out at kevinsmalley.com), and I was in my room. We were home alone. I had been thinking about telling him for a while, and I finally mustered up the courage to do it. Kind of.

I made the first step by going into his room and simply laying down on his bed, with his back turned to me. Okay, great—I was in the room, I had located myself properly (pat on the back to me). However, I froze and couldn’t say a single word. I just laid there with a growing knot in my stomach. Moments passed, then minutes.

After a while, Kevin asked a simple “What’s up?” and I don’t really remember what I responded, but it probably was “Nothing.” I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I stared at the ceiling of his room. More time passed.

Probably sensing the strangeness in the air, Kev asked if I needed to talk about anything, to which I replied (rather quickly) “Yes.” Yes! I had an in. My stomach knot was the size of the state of Ohio.

“What do you want to talk about?” he asked. To which I replied, hesitantly, “I don’t know.” Great, that’s going to take this conversation somewhere (idiot).

Slowly, Kevin started to ask more specifically what I wanted to talk about. “Is it about Mom and Dad?” If I couldn’t bring myself to say it, maybe Kevin could lure it out of me. This might work!

“No.”

“Is it about school?”

“No.”

“Is it about love?”

“Yes.”

Yes! Getting closer now.

“Is it about a girl?”

“No.”

Oh, he just knows how to ask the questions, man.

“Is it about a… boy?”

“Y-yes.”

Voila! Oh my god.

“Are you gay?”

“Yes.”

Thank god. Oh boy, I was getting worried there for a minute. 

And then it was out there, and I felt so incredibly light. The weight on my chest had been tremendous, it was hard to describe. Thinking about doing it was easy enough, but still came with obvious anxiety. However, when I was actually in the situation, everything became immensely difficult. The silence had become palpable.

Thankfully, Kevin was able to draw it out of me and we could talk about it. The whole affair took over an hour, but it is one of my fondest memories because that’s when my brother and I started to become very close. Which was (and is) so important to me, since in a family with more traditional views, coming out is not easy (hence, why it was a drawn-out affair). For the first time, I had a rock I could cling to in the very messy situation I considered myself to be in for most of high school. I often felt like I was living a secret double-life when I was with my family, and the fact that I could express myself openly, even to one person, made all the difference in the world.

Brothers like Kevin are a blessing, and I am so thankful to have him in my life. I don’t know where I’d be without him. National Coming Out Day is such an important day to be celebrated because coming to terms with your own identity, and being able to share it with others, literally saves lives. And makes living so much happier, healthier, and more enjoyable.

What accounts for the existence of gay people? (Part Three/FINALE)

What if I told you gay people, impulses, sensibilities, what have you, were not only natural, but necessary to the progression of the human race, and the evolution of the universe?

Hint: That’s what I’m telling you. Or rather, suggesting to you.

In the past two posts, I’ve mostly talked (written?) about some thoughts on gay identity (as opposed to purpose), on what links us together. I brought that up, because I think identity is linked to purpose. When I bring up Nick Benton’s core gay identifying traits “gay sensibility,” an alternate perspective, and a constructive non-conformity, the “purpose” or I guess “benefits” of such traits on a just human society becomes clearer.

I realize I just kind of rattled off the three traits in the first post without really going into them, but essentially what they suggest, (in Benton’s words) is that gay or so-called “homosexual” passion “is directed toward a different [non-heterosexual] kind of procreation, one which advances the pursuit of beauty, justice, knowledge and truth” (127). Notably, the over-sexualized notion of gay culture is absent from this identity.

In my second post, I elaborated on gay identity more in terms of what it is not (or should not be) rather than what it is, because I think that distinction is important. So much of what outsiders perceive of gay identity is its sexual nature. Social conservatives would decry it as sexual “deviancy,” and they’d have numerous examples for that from the sexual liberation in the ’70s, and even in today’s age of Grindr and hook-up culture. Now, I’m not here to shame people for their sex lives, or to suggest that they’re doing something wrong, but overwhelmingly, the focus both inside and outside of the community has, since Stonewall, been focused on the sex aspect of gay lives. It is clear from the very name used to identify us—”homosexuals.” “Sex” is literally in the name. From that perspective, what differentiates us from everybody else is how we act in the bedroom, and that’s it. I disagree.

It is not sex alone that defines us, because in that view, living as a gay person is a new invention. Yes, anal intercourse has been documented since the Greeks, but the sole pursuit of same-sex relationships openly is rather new, and due to this newness (in the sex-focused view) it is easy to write off the gay “lifestyle” as a “fad,” as something that will “pass.” If we look at being gay as solely sexual it becomes easier to see it as a “deviance,” a “sin,” an “aberration.” However, that thinking ignores the many, many queer individuals who have lived and contributed greatly to human society for as long as that society has existed.

If we base our criteria on what constitutes a gay person (throughout history) by today’s open same-sex relationships, we erase a vital part of people’s identity and undermine today’s LGBT community. This is where Benton’s gay identifiers come into play, and how they are useful. While same-sex erotic passion is difficult to document in our forefathers’ time where there may not have been an outlet to act upon their desires (or discuss it explicitly), it is easier and more appropriate to look for notions of gay “sensibility,” which includes heightened empathy for the underdog and the historically disadvantaged (i.e. women, children, and people of different races/cultures). We can also look for evidence of men and women who did not conform to social standards and lifestyles, and those who brought alternative queer perspectives to social discourse as members of our tribe. Benton is quick to point out that these are not solely gay traits, of course, but the gay social position brings out these qualities more often than not (ESPECIALLY when a queer individual’s sexual nature is stifled to such an extreme degree, as has been the case for much of history).

With this more nuanced and socially-important gay identity, one of Benton’s core arguments becomes stronger: that “homosexuality” is not an “aberration or  chance of nature, but that it is built into the very fabric of the unfolding of the universe” (127). He describes our purpose as part of the universe’s “dissymmetry,” whose role “is to shatter an inertia derived of the simple, dominant binary male-female-reproduction-survival nature of things in favor of not merely survival, but the progress and advance of the species.” How transcendent and inspiring is that for the purpose of gay existence!

While it’s kind of a crazy proposition, he looks to the work of renowned atomic physicist Maurice Goldhaber to back up his idea of the universe’s “dissymmetry.” Goldhaber died at the age of 100 back in May 2011, and in Kenneth Chang’s obituary in the Times he describes the scientist’s most famous contribution as the discovery of “the ghostly, perplexing subatomic particles known as neutrinos.”

Neutrinos, produced in the fusion of the Sun, other stars and in the radioactive decay of elements, flood the universe; trillions of them zip through every person every second.

In the late 1950s, physicists discovered that neutrinos, unlike anything else in the universe known until then, appeared to violate mirror symmetry.

That was odd and unexpected, because looking in a mirror does not usually alter the rules of physics. For example, consider an archer shooting an arrow. As the arrow flies through the air, one could imagine the tail feathers rotating clockwise. In the mirror image of the arrow’s motion, the tail feathers would rotate counterclockwise. […]

But the mirror versions of neutrinos were found to behave differently compared with those that exist in the real world… By observing neutrino-producing transmutations between two carefully chosen elements, Dr. Goldhaber and his collaborators showed that neutrinos, unlike arrows, always rotate in one direction (counterclockwise, it turned out) and never the other.

So Benton attributes this mumbo-jumbo to a “fundamental ‘left-handed’ component to the elemental, sub-atomic structure of physical reality” (139). And this “dissymmetry” moves the universe away from “static equilibrium” to “negentropic” development, which manifests itself to us, in human society, through phenomena such as left-handedness, right-brain domination and homosexuality, among other things.

As RuPaul put it, LGBT individuals are “an extension of the power that created the universe.” No more, no less. Healthy, natural differences are “essential core components of the universe, not accidents, random deviations, corruptions or perversions” (Benton 139). They are by-products of the self-development of space and time. This concept of the universe’s unfolding can be applied to any theology, whether one believes in a Creator or not. Would not a Creator see the benefit in difference and variety? Why can’t LGBT people be one of God’s intended, beautiful, perfect Creations? Would He really make a person with a destiny to fail (i.e. their gay nature is a product of sin)?

We are poets, with an affinity towards more global perspectives, with idealizations of beauty and knowledge, and those of us with an erotic passion beyond the norm “are essential to help drive the development of the individual, civilization, and therefore the universe, forward,” in Benton’s words. How wild, preposterous even, are his claims? But somehow, they strike an inherent chord in me. I look around at what LGBT people contribute now and to what they’ve contributed in the past (of which I’ll be learning eternally), and I can see the alternative perspectives we bring to philosophy, current events, politics, art, and science.

What drives LGBT people to the arts, and to liberal ideologies that forward a social vision of equality, peace, and freedom, if not an overarching purpose to defy norms and convention in the pursuit of truth and progress? I know there are a million holes in the argument, and a million ways to write me off as too abstracted and too idealistic, but there’s also a million-and-one reasons that thinking of gay existence in this way can bring positive, inspiring, and effective change. Change that benefits the lives of LGBT youth, adults, and the elderly, as well as every human being on this Earth. Our differences bring us together and are to be celebrated, not denied. We should use our perspectives to add to the conversation, rather than hide. We are here, we are Queer, and we are not going anywhere.

And on that note—thanks, y’all, for dealing with this three-post arc, that I most certainly could extend to four, five, or probably ten parts, but for all of our sake I will keep at three. This is merely an initial exploration of the titular question, and it is a surfaced one at that. I want to continue to nitpick at these ideas and elaborate upon its tributaries in future posts. If you have any opinions or questions, be sure to comment, email me, or message me on social media.

Tata for now!

[Benton, Nicholas F. Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2013. Print.]