It’s been a weird week for me because I just finished reading Stephen Jimenez’s book The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard. The book was notoriously slammed for its author’s thesis that Shepard – the iconic victim of a homophobic attack in October, 1998 – wasn’t killed because he was gay, but because he was involved in meth deals that went awry. Jimenez’s book was pulled apart brilliantly by Alyssa Rosenberg in a brutal review, that took the author to task for “shoddy” journalism and unchecked narcissism. After reading the book, I haven’t changed my mind about the Shepard case – even if he was a drug addict/dealer as the author reports, that doesn’t change the fact that he was brutally murdered, and that his killers tried to slither their way out of harsher sentences by invoking a gay panic defense (similar to the Twinkie defense that got Dan White off of murder charges after killing Harvey Milk). The only thing I’ll say for Jimenez is that the canonization of any individual doesn’t do much good for a cause – because when we create a hierarchy of victimhood, in which a “most deserving” victim is honored above others, we’re implicitly saying that other victims somehow brought their murders upon themselves. Because we wanted to create a saintly icon in Shepard, we are saying that queer people who are drug addicts, who are promiscuous, who are black or trans somehow are, in part, to blame for their murders – because everyday we read about trans women of color being killed and murdered, and there are no national debates or discussions about how to stem the victimization of trans women of color – in fact, when a trans woman dies, often she’s misgendered by the media, and there are spurious assumptions about her personal life.
Still, even if Jimenez didn’t convince me that the Shepard attack wasn’t motivated in large part by anti-gay sentiment, he got me to thinking about that awful October back in 1998 when Shepard died. After reading The Book of Matt, I felt I needed a palate cleanser of sorts, so I watched the 2002 HBO film The Laramie Project – an excellent film written by Moisés Kaufman, about a group of New York theater artists who go to Laramie in hopes of putting together a play inspired by the voices of Laramie locals. The film is based on the play of the same name, and like a lot of HBO movies, the cast is loaded with a lot of big names – Christina Ricci, Laura Linney, Peter Fonda, Camryn Manheim, Frances Sternhagen, Margo Martindale, Steve Buscemi, Janeane Garofalo, Joshua Jackson, Amy Madigan, and Bill Irwin. I think the big stars did a good job, but it’s the lesser-known actors that had the biggest impact in the film – though I do have to say that Martindale was brilliant (as always), and Irwin has, what is essentially a cameo, but delivers a beautiful monologue. What I liked about The Laramie Project is that aside from Shepard, the story is also about the town and its citizens. It’s a really complicated story with a lot of conflict and complexity, namely in how a lot of the locals, while repulsed by the murder, harbored anti-gay feelings. It’s a beautifully-filmed film, that perfectly encapsulates why Shepard’s memory was so important. There’s a great line delivered by Irwin in the film, in which he marvels at a homecoming parade that quickly becomes a vigil for Shepard. In his amazement he says, “as the parade came down the street… the number of people walking for Matthew Shepard had grown five times. There were at least five hundred people marching for Matthew…Can you imagine? The tag at the end was larger than the entire parade. And people kept joining in. And you know what? I started to cry. Tears were streaming down my face. And I thought, ‘Thank God that I got see this in my lifetime.’ And my second thought was, ‘Thank you, Matthew.'”
So, because Matthew Shepard was on my mind a bit, I guess I was paying attention to gay news a little bit more, and heard about Dr. Ben Carson – a possible Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential elections – who was giving an interview and was asked about homosexuality – specifically whether it was a choice. Dr. Carson believes it was a choice, and said, “a lot of people go into prison straight, and when they come out, they’re gay.” Of course, Dr. Carson apologized (well, non-apologized) for his ridiculous comments, affirmed his belief in civil unions, and declared that he would no longer discuss gay rights. He posited himself as a victim of sorts, being dogged by these questions. Obviously, it’s a bit ridiculous for Dr. Carson to expect anything different: if he’s interested in running for president, he’s going to be asked questions about pressing issues like gay rights. His statement conflating homosexuality with prison sexuality was interesting to me because the guy’s a neurosurgeon – he’s a brilliant man. So if intelligent, well-educated, Yale graduates, can spout nonsense like “prison rape = gay” then what hope do the rest of us have?
And alongside Dr. Carson, I thought about Adam Carolla, who proudly proclaimed that he’ll stop apologizing for his anti-gay and racist humor, because he believes the onus is on those offended to get over it, or as he says, “You are in charge of your own feelings. I’m not in charge of your feelings.” He suggests that those offended should “Go find a politician or somebody who’s in charge and poke a popsicle stick up their butt.” A long time ago, I would called Carolla out on his horseshit and called him a knuckle-dragging neanderthal. But after reading The Book of Matt and seeing The Laramie Project, as well as hearing about the atrocities ISIS is committing against suspected gay men (throwing them off tall buildings), I thought, “you know what? He’s right.” Adam Carolla is an idiot – no question about it, but he and Dr. Carson both personify the sheer absurdity of anti-gay ignorance and how giving them credence by expressing even an ounce of outrage makes the two men more important than they really are. The progression of the queer movement is on the right side of history, and Carolla and Carson are both just bystanders who are caught up in something they don’t understand (and may not be intellectually capable of understanding). I’m not saying I’m not going to call folks out on their asshattery if they manage to say something stupid – I will, but I’m definitely going to choose my battles, because an elected official is fair game. If a member of congress decides to spout anti-gay sentiment, I’ll call her out because she’s capable of real damage. But a second-rate comedian? Or a Yale-educated doctor that has difficult differentiating homosexuality and prison sexuality? Those two men are really just nothings (though if Dr. Carson does run for president, his comments become fair game).