by Warren J. Blumenfeld
I never met Tyler Celmenti, 18, Billy Lucas, 15, Seth Walsh, 13, Asher Brown, 13, or Raymond Chase, 19 in life, but I feel I know them now in death. Their recent suicides hit me like the death of old trusted friends. Their loss to me is palpable.
What happened to these young men is nothing new. We see hate-motivated bullying and violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and other targeted social groups on the rise, and more recently cyberbullying.
And these are simply the most extreme examples of the consequences of the hate in general and “queer bashing” specifically. The taunters of these young men live in a society where segments promote intolerance, for queer bashing comes in a great many forms. Though young people may have been the perpetrators of this recent series of bullying, from where did they learn these attitudes and behaviors?
We cannot simply blame the young people, for according to the lyrics of the song from Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” the problems are woven into the very fabric of our social institutions.
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”
Indications of these societal teaching come in a great many forms. For example, whenever legislators pass laws like the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” to enshrine the institution of marriage as including only “one man and one woman,” that’s queer bashing.
Whenever government “leaders” officially prohibit out and proud LGBT people from serving in the armed forces in defense of their country, that’s queer bashing.
Whenever organizations like the Boy Scouts of America exclude gay and bisexual scouts and scout leaders from its ranks, and whenever the Supreme Court of the United States declares these discriminatory policies as “constitutional,” that’s queer bashing.
When the Catholic Church, in it official catechism declares that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” (1997, #2357), that queer bashing.
When Boyd K. Packer, the second highest leading official of the Mormon Church asserts in a sermon broadcast to millions on the Sunday following media accounts of the tragic suicides of these five young gay men that same-sex attraction is “impure and unnatural” and can be overcome, and that same-sex relationships are morally wrong, that’s queer bashing.
Whenever hate mongers like Fred Phelps and his followers picket and protest the funerals of fallen soldiers, LGBT people, and people who died of AIDS-related diseases on his contention that God is punishing the United States because the country “tolerates homosexuality,” that’s gay bashing.
Whenever the political and theocratic right produce newspaper and television ads that promise “conversion” and “escape” from the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” in the guise of Christian love and understanding, that’s gay bashing.
Whenever politicians like former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott proclaim in the media that homosexuality is a disease in the categories of kleptomania and alcoholism, that’s gay bashing.
Whenever so-called religious leaders like Pat Robertson blame natural disasters on city governments that have enacted laws protecting the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, that’s gay bashing.
Whenever mainstream religious denominations and social organizations condemn homosexuality with one breath and actively obstruct frank, honest, and age-appropriate sexuality/relationship and STD prevention education programs in our schools with another, that’s gay bashing.
Whenever any young person is tossed out on the street when family members become aware of their sexual or gender identity, that’s gay bashing.
Whenever any person is ridiculed, isolated, confronted, or attacked for not conforming to rigid constructions of gender expression, that’s gay bashing.
Whenever hate crimes legislation is drafted without including the documentation of violence directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, branding this as nothing more than the granting of “special rights,” that’s queer bashing.
Also, whenever professors in our universities and teachers in our schools exclude the stories of our lives, our experiences, and our accomplishments in the classroom, that’s queer bashing.
Whenever any of us is taught to hate ourselves, each one of us is demeaned, and that certainly is queer bashing, and we have a right, or rather an obligation, to speak up, to fight back with all the energy, with all the unity, and with all the love we are capable of.
Today we still live in a society that in some quarters proclaim we don’t have a right to exist, but exist we do, everywhere, in all walks of life.
For as we all know, we are the students, professors, teachers, guidance counselors, day care workers, parents — and still some people and groups attempt to prevent us from having contact with the young people of our nation. And because of their insensitivity and fear, the queer bashing continues.
We are the social workers, psychiatrists, workers at homeless shelters and rape crisis centers – and still some people and groups blame us for the break up of what they call the “traditional American family.” And the queer bashing continues.
The reality is that we are holding up this culture. If all the lesbians, bisexuals, gay men, and transgender people suddenly left our jobs, this country would literally crumble.
We are fighting a cultural war: a war against ignorance, which is literally killing our people. And amidst this crisis, segments of our country perpetuate a process of collective denial by refusing to acknowledge the mere existence of this crisis in its attempts to silence us. But silent we are not, and silent we will never be again.
But the good news is that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of all ages are resilient, and no amount of intimidation will ever lock us away in that dank and suffocating closet again.
Lesbians, gay males, bisexuals, transgender people, and our loving and supportive heterosexual allies are coming out earlier and in greater numbers than ever before, as witnessed in the large outpouring of grief, anger, and love over this past week. As marginalized people, we are pushing the boundaries unwilling any longer to accept the repressive status quo. In coalition with other disenfranchised groups and allies, we are refusing to buckle under and to assimilate into a corrupt and corrupting system that forces people to relinquish their integrity and their humanity.
One year before the death of another of our leaders, gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk recorded a will that was to be played in the event of his assassination. In it he stated that he never considered himself simply as a candidate for public office, but rather, always considered himself as part of a movement: a liberation movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people – and a liberation movement for all people.
Each time Harvey spoke in front of a crowd, he urged people to come out everywhere and often: “Tell your immediate family,” he would say, “tell friends, neighbors, people in the stores you shop in, cab drivers, everyone.” And he urged heterosexual people to be our allies, to interrupt derogatory remarks and jokes, to support us and offer aid when needed. If we all did this, he said, we could change the world.
In their brief time with us, Tyler, Billy, Seth, Asher, and Raymond, and all the others known and unknown to us, they have changed lives. Their caring and compassionate souls have transformed the people they met. Though their harassers have succeeded in devastating their bodies, they did not and will never succeed in destroying their gentle spirits, or in extinguishing the heart of a community and a movement for social justice, for their spirits continue, inspiring a people, a nation, a world.
For all of these young men, for their families and friends, and for all of us, I do believe that love WILL conquer the hatred. Thank you for the riches you have left us. We will continue the struggle in your name to make the world a safer and more supportive environment for all its people. May you forever rest in peace.