Friday, October 31, 2008
HOMOPHOBIA and a Lexicon of Violence: a conversation with Jonas Slonacker 10 years after Matthew Shepard
Ten years ago when Matthew Shepard's father spoke in court to ask the judge to show mercy against his son's murderers, Dennis Shepard said he imagined what his son sensed as he struggled to survive while tied to the fence on the outskirts of Laramie that cold night. He imagined the Wyoming wind in his ears, and the sparkling lights of Laramie in the distance. Jonas you've lived in Laramie for a good many years now. Please tell us what you see out there at night, what you hear, what you feel? What's the Laramie you can share with us, the Laramie that is and isn't galvanized by the murder ten years ago.
Laramie sits on the high plains and prairie with foothills to the east and snow-capped mountains to the west. The spot where Matthew Shepard was tied faces the snow-capped mountains to the west. The wind -- we get lots of it -- generally comes from the SW so it is very likely that the wind was blowing in his ears. If you are in town or near town at night, the lights of Laramie dominate the sky and radiate very far due to the vast expanse of prairie. Outside of Laramie, the sky is peppered thickly with stars and if the wind isn't blowing, the silence swallows you up. I remember moving to Laramie with pain and anger about my boyfriend Michael's death and how people reacted to it, and the open spaces, the vastness was able to absorb and dissolve my pain. In Pennsylvania, it felt like my pain bounced off of the buildings and back onto me.
So when I am out and about in Nature around Laramie, I feel free from the bondage and limitations of my small form and am connected to something greater than myself. When I weigh things on the scales in my mind concerning where I want to be and live, the space and nature around Laramie is always number one on the list. I can drive in any direction from town and in 10-30 minutes be all alone out on the prairie, in the foothills, or in the mountains by a lake or stream, under a tree, or in the full force of the wind. I didn't know Matthew so I don't know what his connection to the land of Wyoming was or if he felt a strong bond to it like I do. However, I do know that the land, the space, and the wind was able to absorb and disperse his pain.
Someone who did know Matthew Shepard, and also knew his murderers Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, was quoted as saying about Henderson and McKinney, "My secret hope was that they were from somewhere else, so we could create a distance, you know, like, 'We don't grow children like that here.' Well it's pretty clear WE DO grow children like that here!" When I think about this realization with its implications of OWNING hatred as a community and as a culture, I like to let it spiral to its widest points to investigate homophobia. Matthew Shepard wasn't just "robbed" and killed by some hot-headed, angry, wreckless guys, he was beaten and he was tortured for being queer. Then he was tied to a fence beneath that beautiful Wyoming sky and beaten and tortured again, and then left there to suffer until someone found him many hours later. For thousands of years our religious and cultural heritage of homophobia have given way to men fearing their desires and their bodies to the point that they hate and kill men who are not afraid of their desires and bodies. There are very direct ways this fear is sanctioned.
Years ago I saw a documentary where a dozen prisoners were interviewed about the queer men they had each killed. Every one of these prisoners admitted to having sex with their victims before killing them. It reminded me of an incident of near-violence I went through in the rural Pennsylvania town you and I grew up in Jonas. I was up by the coffin factory reading a book, waiting for my boyfriend to meet me when a group of five classmates surprised me. We were all about seventeen at the time. But these guys started calling me Faggot (at that time I was called Faggot more often than my other name, real name). I stood up and was looking for a way to get the hell out of there, and they started making motions to punch me, and saying they were going to knock my teeth out. But the thing I remember the most, the thing that disturbed me the most, was that they all grabbed their cocks through their pants while saying YOU WANT SOME OF THIS DON'T YOU FAGGOT!? And it was very clear that they had hardons, and the one guy developed a stain through his pants which was probably pre-cum. An old man from the factory opened a window and yelled, which sent them running.
The reason I bring this up, the prisoners, and the guys who wanted to rape me or beat me or both, is because all of this was on my mind when I first found out that Aaron McKinney -- the young man who gave Matthew Shepard the brunt of the torture and beatings which killed him -- later went BACK INTO TOWN, got into a fight at a bar, and was himself beaten so badly that he wound up in the hospital. In fact the doctor from the ER that night said that Matthew was fighting for his life (a fight he lost five days later) a few beds down from Aaron's very own bed. And while I know there is NO EVIDENCE that Aaron nor Russell had had sex with Matthew, I DO wonder about Aaron's need to fight with another man later that night, another man he probably realized was stronger, since he wound up in the hospital himself. It sounded to me like he was trading off sexual tensions: beating a fag and then being beaten for feeling like a fag. And whether or not Aaron had a hardon that night while he was beating Matthew to death, or when he himself was getting his ass kicked into the ER, I'm sure by now he's surrendered to the taste of cock, having been in prison these past ten years. I sincerely hope he's found a nice boyfriend in there who can help him find the answers he needs.
BUT WHAT IS THIS MADNESS WHICH drives so much hatred!? How do we stop it? Governments have come and gone, all kinds of governments, but the ONE THING which has been a constant is our monotheistic religions. And ALL OF THEM have homophobia blasting through them at some point. Don't get me wrong there are plenty of clergy who are marvelous people and who MAKE CLEAR that homosexuals are real people and deserve support and compassion, but still, there are A LOT of clergy who dehumanize us, and make us easy targets to be set upon.
A group of teachers conducted an experiment a few years ago where they wrote onto index cards names of people from Germany during World War II. Their goal was to line up with their cards from "most guilty" to "least guilty" for the crimes against the millions murdered in the concentration camps. Someone had the Hitler card, there was a card for soldiers, etc., etc., but the person who had the card representing clergy who had used the pulpit to instill hatred against Jews, homosexuals, and others in order to galvanize the culture and fuel the way to the trains driving to the camps, THAT person went to the front of the line and refused to budge. The argument was that THESE men of the holy scripture were entrusted to be mediums to the highest spiritual intent of their congregations, and therefore had the most ability to corrupt and to rally support around the hatred and murder of the Nazi regime. WHENEVER I hear clergy being homophobic I know I am hearing THOSE MOST RESPONSIBLE for gay bashing, murder, even suicide of queers. The queer community still has the highest suicide rate. And there is not a day that goes by where queers are not murdered for being queer. To keep track of this carnage I'm positive would destroy me, but my friend kari edwards did exactly this on her blogs up to the day she died.
Wow, yes, I have often wondered if our own worst enemies aren't sometimes one of us living in a repressive cage or if some of our worst enemies also aren't men who wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat with cum all over their belly after having an erotic homo dream. When I came out at Berea College, a small liberal arts college in Kentucky -- yes, I really am a country gay mouse -- anyhow, I came out and a friend of mine told me he was uncomfortable being with me once he knew that, so I told him not to flatter himself, I wasn't attracted to him so he need not worry. He immediately shot back: "Why not?! What is wrong with me? Why aren't you attracted to me?!" Eccck. I pointed out his ridiculous behavior to him and then we started laughing and then he admitted to having a sexual dream about me. Once he admitted it, it was not an issue anymore and we moved on and he married a woman friend of ours and they are still happy 30 years later as far as I know.
So, I think having a erotic queer dream or attraction isn't unusual or unnatural and it doesn't even mean you are queer, sometimes it does, of course, but it may just mean you are human, you have hormones, you are a natural animal and why wouldn't someone be curious about what it would be like to have sex with someone of the same sex? To express that curiosity verbally or even physically is the healthy choice and to deny it and bury it deep inside makes it fester and become ugly and insane until you explode one day and beat up a "FAG" or kill one and then your karma sucks for a really long time. The straight men I know who are most comfortable with gay men are secure in themselves and are conscious of who they are, including their curiosity.
That's what happened with McKinney. I personally believe that Russell Henderson was mostly just a guilty bystander. There have been rumors that McKinney and Shepard may have known each other or that they at least met and I think there may be some truth hidden there. McKinney and Shepard both knew Doc O'Conner (another character in the play) who drove Matthew and friends to a gay bar in Ft. Collins, CO. in one of his limos and McKinney and his girlfriend had lived with Doc. Doc did an interview once and said that a couple of times when McKinney's girlfriend was gone that he and McKinney got it on. I believe that. Doc had a store north of Laramie in a ghost town named Bosler where he sold mattresses and furniture. Tom Horn lived for a short time in Bosler. (For you Western aficionados.) I went to Doc's store about 20 years ago, and he hit on me really hard. He talked like he wanted some rough action. By the way, Doc is originally from a small town in Pennsylvania as well. I met him years later at the small Laramie airport but he didn't remember me and he didn't hit on me again. Darn. The second time I met him he told me in person how he had gotten it on with McKinney and that Aaron liked getting it up the ass. It was an interesting and somewhat creepy conversation. Doc grew up in Pa. like I said and married and had a mess of kids and eventually divorced and moved to Wyoming. At one point in the conversation he became emotional telling me about a Catholic priest who had buggered him when he was an altar boy long ago in that small Pennsylvania town. It was in one of the coal counties in northeast Pa., I think… It was sad.
So, yes, the preachers, the modern day Pharisees condemning us and then waking up from a dream about fucking us and maybe there is cum on their bellies. Shame on them. Look at Rev. Phelps. I saw him when he was here in Laramie, doing one of his protests and I studied him for a few minutes and that man really wants to get it on with a man and have some kinky sadomasochistic sex but instead of doing that, he spews vile homophobic crap. After the protests, he goes home and beats up his wife and children. If he could just get it on with a man, maybe even just once, he would probably be a nicer person, maybe not likeable but definitely easier to be near. I did a Google search on Phelps and two of his sons left the family and live in the Pacific NW--I think that is the right location and they have opened up and spoken about the domestic abuse they experienced as children. While I was searching Phelps via Google I also went to his website and watched a video. In the video, Phelps and all of his family members were singing a song entitled: "God hates the World." At least they're honest.
GOD HATES THE WORLD!? The Phelps family has always frightened me, but in some ways not as much as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who preach hatred of queers with more civility. I much prefer Phelps frothing at the mouth because he turns people off, even many homophobes. But Falwell is now dead, and I'm glad he is, and he was working my last nerve when he came to Philadelphia last year to preach his anti-gay sermon at the Exodus Baptist Church. Robertson is far more dangerous, like the present pope at the Vatican, as they use homophobia as a shield to protect the good christian families of the world by being the good gray, wise fathers.
But Jonas, this information about McKinney having had sex with men is EXACTLY the kind of information I was fishing for. The transcript of his initial interview with the police after they picked him up made me sick to my stomach BECAUSE of how he claimed to have blacked out. Yet he had full details of what he did for someone who had blacked out. It made me sick mostly because it was clearer and clearer the deeper you got into the transcript that he was hiding MUCH MORE than the so-called black out. This man really seemed to have a deep pathological response to Shepard being queer. The documentary of the prisoners who had all killed queer men, as well as the documentary with the murderers of Brandon Teena have made me just as sick, really physically sick, and I keep mentioning feeling sick because the visceral part of it is my body saying THIS IS from a world lacking its ability to Love openly!
It's the lack of autonomy, it seems to me, which drives this violence. And the casual nature that these men talk about their murdering queers is even more evidence that there's a HUGE connection between the sanctioned allowance, the great unsaid, the subtext to our culture of silent hate, our culture of religious fanatacism, and the cycle of repressing the scapegoat to relieve the tensions. Killing the goat for sacrifice seems to have relieved these men, even though they're in prison. One prisoner ate apple sauce while talking about the queer man he had fucked then stabbed to death. It's all been figured out by the greater cultural imprints for this man that (secretly) what he did was OK! When it's OK to dehumanize a group of people there's very little to prevent unapologetic murder.
At the same time it's VERY IMPORTANT that we are always honest when the world is on our side. I say this because you told me years ago that the gay press and the straight press had differing ways of reporting on the things you said to them in interviews. Can you share that experience with us? It's very interesting as well as still surprising all these years later.
When Shepard was killed--as a gay man in Wyoming, I was contacted by a lot reporters for gay and straight newspapers, magazines, etc. I can't remember all the specific details, this having happened 10 years ago. I just know that I don't trust what I read anymore. I often wonder how much of what I am reading is true. I say that because almost everyone who interviewed me ended up editing my words to fit their take on the whole incident and it always felt strange when I would read my words and see a sentence put together with another sentence when the two utterances were sometimes a half an hour apart but they were put together to make a different statement, one I didn't really make or they would edit my words like, well, let's say that I told you I hated Apples that have spoiled and are rotten and then you quoted me as saying—Jonas Slonaker said; "I hate Apples!" See the difference? It was so annoying to see that happen over and over again and eventually I stopped returning the calls when newspaper reporters left me a message. I was like—fuck this.
I really like the way you are doing this interview because I know everything I write will be in context. Even the folks who came and interviewed me and then edited maybe 8 hours of my speaking and answering questions to a few lines that my character utters in the Laramie Project—well, yeah, I said those lines but to me they feel naked. The first time I saw the play, my character felt like one of those heads in Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In—remember that show? Like my head popped out and said: BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. It felt strange because I knew the whole context of everything I said then just one line would pop out on stage and of course, they had to edit my words otherwise, the whole play would have been about me. Hmmmm, why the fuck not! Not the Laramie Project, The Jonas Project. Anyhow, when I think about this issue and also ponder how my partner of ten years and I can be in the same place at the same time and end up with different stories, I can understand why there are misunderstandings and fights and wars. Sometimes we see what we want to see and not what is really there and that is what the reporters did with my words. Perhaps they meant no ill will. I really wonder if they just had their own way of understanding the Shepard Murder and then rearranged my words to fit their own story.
And yes, we do need to be honest when the world or some of it is on our side. There is a straight woman in Laramie, Beth Loffreda, who is working tirelessly to get the University of Wyoming to have partner benefits. She really wants the gay community to have that and she is amazing. She is working harder on the issue than any queer person in Laramie. I applaud her and there are some other non queer gems out here that are fighting for us in the same way. Anyway, just for the record--I do hate apples, all of them, yellow, red, rotten, and fresh.
ALL APPLES!? What about their worms? Do you hate their worms? But we have relatives who live on an apple orchard! HAHAHA!
How did you feel about actor John McAdams's portrayal of you in the film version of The Laramie Project? Did he meet with you at all? And what about Steve Buscemi's portrayal of Doc O'Conner, did Buscemi get that down? Do you know the young woman Christina Ricci played? Or the Janeane Garofalo character? Or any of the other people played by actors that you may know? I'm trying to get a gauge about how serious the actors were, outside of writer/director Moises Kaufman's take on the story.
Okay, Cuzzin, Hock Dich Hie as our Pennsylvania Dutch Nana used to say which translates basically as Sit yourself there, or if you understood her tone of voice and body language, it meant: sit your ass there and keep it there until I tell you you can move it! Ya! No, I don't hate the worms in the apples. John McAdam's portrayal of me was really quite good but maybe not queer enough. He spent a day with me once to watch me and my moves and at one point I asked him: "Are you sure you are up to this?" He laughed. Steve Buscemi's rendition of Doc was a bit too nice plus he didn't have the big six inch belly hanging over the front like Doc…Okay, me thinks now I am in trouble. Dunno who Christina Ricci's character is or Janeane Garofalo's. I thought about googling them but screw it. I probably should know who they are and might recognize them if I saw their faces but I am not big on pop culture. Yeah, I have been threatened several times that my Gay card was going to be taken away especially when I told a room full of queers once that I really don't care for musicals. God, did they ever shriek. I think all the actors made an effort to study their characters and then play them accordingly but you know, here is what I think:
I get emails now and again from folks who are going to play me in the Laramie Project and they want to know things about me so they can play me better. I tell them that they are the artist and it doesn't matter because no one in Kokomo, Indiana knows me. Once someone emailed me and asked all those questions and one question was: On a scale of one to ten with one being femme and ten being butch, what number are you? I told him I was a five. HA. Seriously, I then told him to play me femme or butch, it didn't matter.
You're a five Jonas? Well some days I'm a two, some days an eight!
The bartender was the key eyewitness at the trial, and he made crystal clear that Matthew Shepard sat at the bar by himself, not approaching others or engaging others for any reason. According to the bartender Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were playing pool in the back of the bar and THEY approached Shepard and talked to him as he sat in his seat, then later left with him. Despite these FACTS from the bartender who would know more than anyone, some people in Laramie when interviewed had their minds made up that Shepard somehow DESERVED the torture and murder. One man said he had "heard" that he came onto McKinney and Henderson, and added, "Well HELL you don't come onto regular people!" I LOVE the "regular people" part by the way. A woman said that McKinney and Henderson wanted to teach him a lesson about coming onto straight people. Another woman said the media was acting "like it was ten murders instead of one!" The sheriff said he lost some friends when trying to point out the FACTS of the case to them. What was your experience talking with others in town, or things you overheard others saying?
ARG. A fucking RG. This question is volatile for me at this point in time. With the tenth year anniversary of the Shepard murder just passing us by, the local paper called The Boomerang has been full of the most ignorant ass shit possible. Now, enlightened people have also countered most of the BS but still it is aggravating. Bill and I just got a subscription to the damn paper and wonder if it was a mistake because we live in our nice cool neighborhood here and work in our cool department at the University and forget that there are ignorant asses all over the place. We just never meet them I guess. So, the worst thing was that the owner of the paper, a born again X-ian, wrote an editorial a week ago and he called the Shepard incident a murder gone bad and called it galling that people have called it a homophobic attack and said that many readers wondered why the anniversary was newsworthy?!?!? and some people asked to have their papers held until it was over!!! I wrote a response but they refused to print it so if you don't mind I am going to attach it on to here so that some people can read it. My blood is boiling as I think about this and I think my hair is going to start on fire soon.
Yes, people say that Shepard deserved it for coming on to them and then others say it wasn't a homophobic attack. Straight women friends of mine here say that if women get to beat the shit out of men every time they came on to them when they don't want it, well, a lot of men would get the shit kicked out of them! One woman wrote that to the newspaper ten years ago when this all happened. Other people write to the paper wondering why Daphne Salk, a woman who got killed here a year or so before Shepard, didn't get the same kind of media coverage. I contend that if the situations were reversed and Daphne got attention and Shepard didn't, they would NOT fucking lament that fact.
Folks who think it was a robbery gone bad, or that Shepard deserved it are just deceiving themselves and that is easy to do! I had a conversation with a Mormon recently and as we all know their church is working to undo the California Marriage thing. This man, who I like a lot, told me that they (Mormons) were against Gay Marriage because the government was going to force them to do things they didn’t believe it. Now, don't get me wrong, I am not a big fan of the gay marriage thing but I said: "HUH? Force who to do what? They are just going to allow gays who want to marry, to marry and it won't be at your church. We will go do it where we can and they won't force Mormon churches to marry gay people and no one is going to force you to marry a man! If you don't believe in Gay Marriage, don't marry someone of the same sex." I really think he got it, it is that whole deception thing. The right wing X-ians do it when they say we want special rights. Special Rights? To do what? Not pay taxes? Legally drive over the speed limit? Not wear clothing in public? Hmmmm.
Okay, here is the letter I sent to the editor of our paper:
It was depressing to read Sunday's editorial, Laramie is a Community, Not a Project, which said that many subscribers didn't understand why the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's murder qualified as news and that some even requested their newspaper delivery be stopped until that reporting was over. The editorial also said: "that police reports certainly seem to indicate that this was a robbery that went very bad." and "it was galling because the crime was portrayed as a homophobic attack."
Is it customary when robbing someone to drive the victim down a dirt road, tie him to a fence, brutally beat him and leave him to slowly die? Surely there was a powerful emotion like hatred behind the beating of Matthew Shepard. For God's sake, they broke his skull. A popular story is that drugs made McKinney and Henderson do it. Even if drugs were involved, drugs don't make you hate; they simply magnify what already exists. I remember reading that both the perpetrators said homophobic things when they were interrogated and it is public record that McKinney tried to use Gay Panic Defense in his trial.
Many citizens of Laramie want to move on but denial isn't the best way to accomplish that. Understanding, love, honesty, and bravery might be better paths to that end and numerous people in Laramie have responded that way. There is no disgrace for Laramie in acknowledging that part or all of the motivation was homophobia. NO, the crime certainly does not define Laramie. How we react to the crime, how we talk about it, and if we do or don't do anything to prevent this from happening again does define Laramie. If someone paints a swastika on the home of a Jewish family, is it graffiti that went bad or hatred? If someone burns a cross on the lawn of an African American while robbing them, is it a robbery that went very bad or a hate crime? When a gay man is tied to a fence and viciously beaten, is it just a robbery that went very bad or perhaps something more?
Jonas, that letter is marvelous, and I'm glad it gets to see the light here, even if the newspaper refused to publish it. It's sad news that suppresses the news!
One of the things in McKinney's taped confession with the sheriff that is most common with gay bashing is the language used when talking about their victims. When the sheriff asked him what Shepard looked like he answered, "Like a queer," "Yeah, like a fag." When the sheriff asks how he met Shepard, McKinney asks, "The fag?" Father Roger Schmit from Laramie -- who appears to be an extraordinary human being whose foremost concern seems to be helping us all attain compassion -- was very interested in making part of the sentencing of McKinney and Henderson be that they tell us their stories. That they tell us WHAT drove them to do what they did. Asking the murderers to be our teachers to show us what and how our culture we all perpetuate encourages such hatred. SOUNDS LIKE A GREAT IDEA!
One of the things you and I know firsthand Jonas from growing up in an isolated rural culture is that people are HELL-BENT on judging and hating groups of people they don't even know. There is so much FICTION created from unnecessary and unprovoked fears surrounding the distant Other. Building on Father Schmit's call for learning what drives us, how marvelous would it be to have young elementary school children learning compassion by having classes which explore and explain homosexuality, as well as different racial and religious groups. Where we grew up and went to school THE MOST homophobic teacher taught sex-ed. He was so blatantly homophobic, and encouraged laughter when talking about how sick he thought a man would have to be to want something shoved up his ass. He empowered the ridicule and physical abuse my boyfriend and I endured in school, and made us feel like complete ZEROES! The sex-ed class literally taught hatred.
Language can easily set the mechanisms of fear or compassion of young minds in motion when coming from teachers and other authority figures. But wanting compassion taught to children ultimately flies in the face of our very nation's governmental treatment of its citizens and military solutions in dealing with other nations. But we have to start somewhere.
In teaching compassion we would also need to teach the history of racism, homophobia, genocide. For instance, in battling the use of dehumanizing language of homophobia, let's LOOK to the origin of "faggot." Kids need to know and DESERVE to know that when they use that word they're using a word whose origins are from the Inquisition. Homosexuals were burned alive, their flesh synonymous with and no better than the very sticks -- or faggots, as faggots means sticks or kindling -- that burned them to death. We're so used to the word faggot meaning a homosexual, but have no idea of the countless tortuous deaths that created it. It's important to define the origins of common hateful slang. Learning such things helps us in many ways to grow toward tolerance and compassion.
Father Schmit was an amazing man. I remember thinking that if I was forced to be a Catholic, I would want him as my priest but thank god that never happened. YES, YES, YES, the perpetrators should have been able to tell their stories so we could learn from it but as far as I remember Matthew Shepard's parents didn't want them to be able to do so and a few of us wonder if there wasn't something that had to be hidden like maybe McKinney and Shepard did know each other but so what if they did? There was a woman who wrote a story for Harpers and her name was Joanne Wypijevski. I am positive I spelled her name wrong. In any event, she wrote an amazing article ten years ago shortly after the murder and it was the most right on article of all of the ones I read. She basically said that McKinney and Henderson did what they did because they were taught to be men in a traditional American way that meant they hated the feminine. Nothing worse than a man being feminine, you know! Much better that he be tough and kick ass and kill people especially effeminate men.
I love your whole idea above about compassion and how to learn it and that means dealing with racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, genocide, all of that. Any time we create a Them and Us situation, there are going to be problems. And I know that I also do this when I talk about the religious right and really the better way to get to them is to get to know them and talk to them and so forth. I have a friend here on campus who works in an office with a right wing born again and she takes her to task for hurtful things she says. Recently she introduced her born again office mate to me and she liked me cause sometimes I'm funny and shit, you know. When this woman said homophobic things later on, my friend told her I was gay and she looked puzzled and stopped saying those kinds of things because homosexuality finally had a face...
Homosexuality has a face indeed, thanks so much cousin Jonas with the homosexual face. This has been a valuable conversation for me, and I hope so too for others.
(born 1976, murdered 1998)