(from The Nation, 11 November 1998)
When Trent Lott heard the news about the murder of Matthew Shepard, the first thoughts that flashed through his mind were all about spin. Trent Lott worried about how to keep his promise to the religious right, to speak out against the homosexual agenda, without seeming to endorse murder. Trent Lott endorses murder, of course; his party endorses murder, his party endorses discrimination against homosexuals and in doing so it endorses the ritual slaughter of homosexuals.
Democracy is a bloody business, demanding blood sacrifice. Every advance American democracy has made toward fulfilling the social contract, toward justice and equality and true liberty, every step forward has required offerings of pain and death. The American people demand this, we need to see the burnt bodies of the four little black girls, or their sad small coffins; we need to see the battered, disfigured face of the beaten housewife; we need to see the gay man literally crucified on a fence. We see the carnage and think, Oh, I guess things are still tough out there, for those people. We daydream a little: What does that feel like, to burn? To have your face smashed by your husband's fist? To be raped? To be dragged behind a truck till your body falls to pieces? To freeze, tied to a fence on the Wyoming prairie, for eighteen hours, with the back of your head staved in? Americans perfected the horror film, let's not kid ourselves: These acts of butchery titillate, we glean the news to savor the unsavory details.
And then, after we've drawn a few skin-prickling breaths of the aromas of torture and agony and madness, we shift a little in our comfortable chairs, a little embarrassed to have caught ourselves in the act of prurient sadism, a little worried that God has seen us also, a little worried that we have lazily misplaced our humanity, a little sad for the victims: Oh, gee, I guess I sort of think that shouldn't happen out there to those people, and something should be done. As long as I don't have to do it.
And having thought as much, having, in fact, been edified, changed a very little bit by the suffering we have seen, our humanity as well as our skin having been pricked, we turn our back on Matthew Shepard's crucifixion and return to our legitimate entertainments. When next the enfranchisement of homosexuals is discussed, Matthew Shepard's name will probably be invoked, and the murder of gay people will be deplored by decent people, straight and gay; and when the religious right shrills viciously about how the murder doesn't matter, as it has been doing since his death, decent people everywhere will find the religious right lacking human kindness, will find these Gary Bauers and Paul Weyrichs and Pat Robertsons un-Christian, repulsive, in fact. And a very minute increment toward decency will have been secured. But poor Matthew Shepard. Jesus, what a price!
Trent Lott endorses murder. He knows that discrimination kills. Pope John Paul II endorses murder. He, too, knows the price of discrimination, having declared anti-Semitism a sin, having just canonized a Jewish-born nun who died in Auschwitz. He knows that discrimination kills. But when the Pope heard the news about Matthew Shepard, he too worried about spin. And so, on the subject of gay-bashing, the Pope and his cardinals and his bishops and priests maintain their cynical political silence. Rigorously denouncing the abuse and murder of homosexuals would be a big sin against spin; denouncing the murder of homosexuals in such a way that it received even one-thousandth of the coverage his and his church's attacks on homosexuals routinely receive, this would be an act of decency the Pope can't afford, for the Pope knows: Behind this one murdered kid stand legions of kids whose lives are scarred by the bigotry this Pope defends as sanctioned by God. None of these kids will ever be allowed to marry the person she or he loves, not while the Pope and his church can prevent it; all of these kids are told, by the Holy Catholic Church, and by the Episcopalians and Lutherans and Baptists and Orthodox Jews: Your love is cursed by God.
To speak out against murdering those who are discriminated against is to speak out against discrimination. To remain silent is to endorse murder.
A lot of people worry these days about the death of civil discourse. The Pope, in his new encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), laments the death of civil discourse and cites "ancient philosophers who proposed friendship as one of the most appropriate contexts for sound philosophical inquiry." It's more than faintly ludicrous, this plea for friendship coming from the selfsame Pope who has tried so relentlessly to stamp out dissent in churches and Catholic universities, but let's follow the lead of the crazies who killed Matthew Shepard and take the Pope at his word.
Friendship is the proper context for discussion. Fine and good. Take the gun away from the head, Your Holiness, and we can discuss the merits of homosexual sex, of homosexual marriage, of homosexual love, of monogamy versus promiscuity, of lesbian or gay couples raising kids, of condom distribution in the schools, of confidential counseling for teenagers, of sex education that addresses more than abstinence. We can discuss abortion, we can discuss anything you like. Just promise me two things, friend: First, you won't beat my brains out with a pistol butt and leave me to die by the side of the road. Second, if someone else, someone a little less sane than you, feeling entitled to commit these terrible things against me because they understood you a little too literally, or were more willing than you to take your distaste for me and what I do to its most full-blooded conclusion, if someone else does violence against me, friend, won't you please make it your business to make a big public fuss about how badly I was treated? Won't you please make a point, friend, you who call yourself, and who are called, by millions of people, the Vicar on Earth of the very gentle Jesus, won't you please in the name of friendship announce that no one who deliberately inflicts suffering, whether by violence or by prejudice, on another human being, can be said to be acting in God's name? And announce it so that it is very clear that you include homosexuals when you refer to "human beings," and announce it so that the world hears you, really hears you, so that your announcement makes the news, as you are capable of doing when it suits your purposes? Won't you make this your purpose too? And if you won't, if you won't take responsibility for the consequences of your militant promotion of discrimination, won't you excuse me if I think you are not a friend at all but rather a homicidal liar whose claim to spiritual and moral leadership is fatally compromised, is worth nothing more than...well, worth nothing more than the disgusting, opportunistic leadership of Trent Lott.
A lot of people worry these days about the death of civil discourse, and would say that I ought not call the Pope a homicidal liar, nor (to be ecumenical about it) the orthodox rabbinate homicidal liars, nor Trent Lott a disgusting opportunistic hatemonger. But I worry a lot less about the death of civil discourse than I worry about being killed if, visiting the wrong town with my boyfriend, we forget ourselves so much as to betray, at the wrong moment in front of the wrong people, that we love one another. I worry much more about the recent death of the Maine antidiscrimination bill, and about the death of the New York hate crimes bill, which will not pass because it includes sexual orientation. I worry more about the death of civil rights than civil discourse. I worry much more about the irreversible soul-deaths of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered children growing up deliberately, malevolently isolated by the likes of Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich than I worry about the death of civil discourse. I mourn Matthew Shepard's actual death, caused by the unimpeachably civil "we hate the sin, not the sinner" hypocrisy of the religious right, endorsed by the political right, much more than I mourn the lost chance to be civil with someone who does not consider me fully a citizen, nor fully human. I mourn that cruel death more than the chance to be civil with those who sit idly by while theocrats, bullies, panderers and hatemongers, and their crazed murderous children, destroy democracy and our civic life. Civic, not civil, discourse is what matters, and civic discourse mandates the assigning of blame.
If you are lesbian, gay, transgendered, bi, reading this, here's one good place to assign blame: The Human Rights Campaign's appalling, post-Shepard endorsement of Al D'Amato dedicates our resources to the perpetuation of a Republican majority in Congress. The HRC, ostensibly our voice in Washington, is in cahoots with fag-bashers and worse. If you are a heterosexual person, and you are reading this: Yeah yeah yeah, you've heard it all before, but if you have not called your Congressperson to demand passage of a hate crimes bill that includes sexual orientation, and e-mailed every Congressperson, if you have not gotten up out of your comfortable chair to campaign for homosexual and all civil rights--campaign, not just passively support--may you think about this crucified man, and may you support--may you think about this crucified man, and may you mourn, and may you burn with a moral citizen's shame. As one civilized person to another: Matthew Shepard shouldn't have died. We should all burn with shame.
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