The Quiet Queers
This may be news to you: a little more than a month ago, on September 6, a man in downtown Portland was attacked and severely beaten because of his perceived sexual orientation. I heard about this crime the day after it happened, because a friend had come across a Web site that reported the incident and called me to see if I’d heard anything about it. I hadn’t — not in the newspaper, or on the radio. The next day, the e-mails began, and I found out a little more, but the only coverage in the news was a small Dispatch paragraph in the daily paper and short bits on the evening TV news.
Because of my good connections to the queer community here, I found out the victim’s name, which had been withheld from the press, and that he had suffered bleeding in his brain but was going to be OK. I knew the guy, of course, Portland being the small town it is; he was my upstairs neighbor for a while when I lived on the West End.
The news was frightening. I know firsthand that there are homophobic hate-mongers in this city (see “Hill Dweller,” Sept. 25, 2007), but I often forget. Because I don’t look all that “gay” these days — my hair is growing out, my clothes are a little more feminine — I don’t get a lot of the everyday harassment many of my gender non-conforming friends do.
But this fall I’ve been thinking twice about walking late at night by myself, and have been extra-aware of where I park in large parking lots. I feel like what happened to this guy could have happened to any of us.
Fast forward a month, to the rally held on Oct. 7 in support of the victim. One hundred and twenty-five people gathered in Monument Square to hear the victim, who revealed his name as Byron, as well as speeches from a startling list of local dignitaries, including the chief of police, nonprofit leaders from a wide range of community and social service organizations, representatives from faith communities, and the mayor.
This event also got almost no media coverage; the only article I saw was one in the West End News a couple weeks after the event.
I try hard not to set up a hierarchy of oppression: to say this kind of difference is worse to have than that kind of difference. I feel strongly that people experiencing all kinds of oppression should be working together, rather than being divisive.
But it’s hard for me not to compare the response to what happened to Byron to the response to another crime that happened around the same time: the murder of James Angelo outside Mercy Hospital on Sept. 7.
I can’t compare the crimes themselves — one man was tragically killed, another was severely beaten, but lived. However, the difference in responses is clear.
The Somali community in Maine has publicly expressed outrage and grief over Mr. Angelo’s death, and the rest of the state has responded. News stories, posters, rewards. Innumerable conversations, debates, public expressions of grief. All of that is as it should be.
The queer community has been oddly silent about Byron’s beating; partially, I think, in deference to the victim, whose attackers are still at large. But there are ways to talk about this that aren’t about the details of the crime, and that don’t hold Byron up as an example — something he clearly doesn’t want to be.
We could talk about the prevalence of hate language in schools, language that sets up an environment of homophobia and sexism. According to a school climate survey published in 2005 by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, 75. 4 percent of high school students hear derogatory remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” frequently or often at school, and nearly nine out of ten (89.2 percent) report hearing “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” frequently or often. The name of this column actually comes from a word that was popular in my central Maine middle school, used to describe someone who was hopelessly uncool.
We could talk about why victims of hate crimes — including myself, one year ago — are so saturated by a culture of anxiety and shame that they are reluctant to report crimes for fear of retaliation.
We could, like one community member has, host a small benefit for an organization that does anti-violence work.
Or instead of leaving the response to organizations, we could take individual action, including letters to the editor to let the media know what we think of this lack of coverage. We can be as “out” in our communities as possible. We can financially support the organizations that do organize public responses.
Most important of all, my community, let’s not be silent. On this, it’s too important.
Jen Hodsdon did finally get that rainbow sticker on her car. It looks really gay.