Queer Reading: Book tries to make the case for gay martyrs

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday June 3, 2020
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Brett Krutzsch has written Dying To Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics." Photo: Courtesy Twitter
Brett Krutzsch has written Dying To Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics." Photo: Courtesy Twitter

A new book seeks to examine gay deaths that captured the country's attention.

Brett Krutzsch, a visiting assistant professor of religion at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, has written "Dying To Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics" (Oxford University Press, $29.95) to remember those people whose lives were lost while working for LGBTQ equality in the U.S.

The book includes Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998, and Tyler Clementi, who died by suicide in 2010. He also writes about Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978, and has a postscript on the June 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre.

Krutzsch maintains that activists memorialized these particular deaths as part of a political strategy to promote greater acceptance of gay Americans, deploying Protestant Christian ideals (such as monogamy) to present gay people as similar to upstanding heterosexuals and therefore deserving of equal rights.

Krutzsch, 40, who is gay, was interviewed by the Bay Area Reporter via email.

The author counters the prevailing wisdom that religion has mostly opposed LGBTQ people and claims that secular activists at the end of the 20th and the start of the 21st centuries promoted "Protestant values as necessary for entree into full American citizenship." Krutzsch is part of a trend where scholars are seeking religion in places beyond houses of worship, often using spiritual language, especially memorialization, to shift the image of gay people in the popular imagination.

He claims public veneration influenced the national debate over LGBTQ rights, and how gay secular activists with no connections to religious organizations used Christian rhetoric as "an authorizing discourse and a legitimizing political tool," to influence public opinion, convert anti-gay attitudes, and promote assimilation. (Milk, as Krutzsch notes, was Jewish.)

"People assume that LGBTQ politics and religion have always been in tension," he wrote in the email. "While that is one part of the story, it ignores how religion shapes American culture, including LGBTQ politics. With the book, I wanted to show that Christianity informs American ideas about which lives have value. Race, of course, also greatly shapes those ideas.

"No LGBTQ murder in American history has captured the nation's attention as much as Matthew Shepard's killing in 1998," he added. "It is not a coincidence that he was a white, practicing Protestant. Just as his race helps explain why countless heterosexuals cared about his murder, so does his religion. I wanted people to see that there is a decades-long history of LGBTQ people appearing 'normal' and acceptable to heterosexuals because of their compatibility with Christianity."

Krutzsch wrote, "Martyrs can unite a community around a shared sense of persecution and victimization ... standing in for the masses who have suffered similar horrors. Additionally, martyrs serve as emblems for those outside the community, as representative ideals who might change the attitudes of those who have never supported the martyr's group."

Krutzsch's book, which began as his doctoral dissertation at Temple University, was inspired by the popularity of the It Gets Better videos as a response to LGBTQ teen suicides.

Clementi was an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University. He jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate used a webcam on his dorm room computer and his hallmate's computer to view, without Clementi's knowledge, Clementi kissing another man. Clementi's death brought nationwide attention to cyberbullying and the struggles facing LGBTQ youth.

"Initially, I was troubled by the popularity of the It Gets Better project," Krutzsch wrote. "I found it strange that so many people accepted the idea that life improves for queer people simply because they get older. I wanted to think through why so many Americans approved of the campaign's central premise that after pain comes a better life."

Krutzsch makes a fascinating comparison between the It Gets Better videos and Protestant evangelical conversion narratives.

"They share a similar structure. In both, people describe their past as one of pain, then there is a transformative moment, and both end with descriptions of an improved life and a promise to others that their lives will improve if they follow a similar path," he wrote. "Both are attempts to save lives, either through accepting Jesus Christ as one's personal Lord and savior or through accepting one's sexual or gender identity and believing that life gets better as one gets older.

"From that starting point, I wanted the book to consider the interplay of religion, death, queer politics, and the parameters of LGBTQ inclusion in America," he added.

Krutzsch began to think of other times when these forces emerged and began to focus on Shepard's murder, which was compared to Jesus' crucifixion and his depiction as an all-American kid next door and good Christian rather than the "typical" godless gay adults.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation, set up by his parents after his killing, took a cautious view of the book.

"I hope the project is well-meant, but something about 'secular gays used religious language about victims of violence to advance their political agenda' doesn't sit well with me," James Marsden, executive director of the foundation, wrote in a statement after the B.A.R. asked for comment. "Not only because it sounds cynical, even sinister, but because that's not what happened. Unfortunately, the first reports about Matt's murder erroneously described him as being tied to the fence in a crucifixion posture, which simply wasn't true.

"But once that idea was loose, of course, leaders in the movement parroted it back and a myth of martyrdom was created," Marsden added. "Matt's family and friends have always pushed to correct this claim. The important thing about Matt was, he was just a person, one who should still be alive and well today. The truth is no movement for equality would ultimately succeed by sacrificing the lives of those who sought it. The change came the way it always does — through patient, tedious, repetitive work by millions of individuals, who may have mourned Matt or Tyler or Harvey, but were pushing ahead for themselves, their loved ones and those yet to come."

Krutzsch sees Shepard, Clementi, and Milk as appealing to the "cultural currency of Christianity, by which I mean that some Christian images and ideas are so well known in the United States that Americans can use them and find others have an immediate reference point that establishes possibilities for understanding and political alliance.

"Harvey Milk was a secular Jew. To make him appeal to the predominantly Christian country, some activists tapped into the cultural currency of Christianity, calling him the gay MLK," he wrote, referring to the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in 1968. "That does not mean they turned him into someone who believed Jesus was God. But it does mean that some downplayed his Jewishness, depicted him as committed to coupled fidelity, and presented him as someone whose death, like Christ's crucifixion, transformed the world."

Interestingly, Krutzsch contents that the AIDS epidemic did not produce individual martyrs imprinted on the heterosexual consciousness. In fact, some politicians referred to AIDS with condemnatory religious language, saying it was God's punishment for the "sin" of homosexuality. Also, the disease was largely transmitted through "gay male sexuality," which was seen as threatening and squeamish to non-gay people.

"Actually, there was a famous AIDS martyr — he just wasn't gay. It was Ryan White, a heterosexual hemophiliac adolescent who got HIV from a blood transfusion, not from gay sex," Krutzsch wrote. "After heterosexuals ignored and maligned gay men with AIDS for years, many were moved by Ryan White's struggle with AIDS. His funeral was broadcast on national television and first lady Barbara Bush attended the service. People often forget, or don't discuss, that homophobia increased as AIDS ravaged the LGBT community in the 1980s. Although there were some exceptions, mass death from AIDS brought increased condemnation, not huge waves of support for gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans."

Limited attention to people of color

Krutzsch, who is white, observes the limited attention given to acts of violence against lesbian and transgender Americans, and LGBT people of color, "as it exposes the long history of white male dominance in LGBT activism, as well as the gendered and raced privileges of white men who are often assumed innocent when violence is done to them as opposed to misogynistic and racial biases which commonly blame women and people of color for the violence done to them."

Krutzsch gives examples of unsuccessful efforts to turn people into martyrs such as transgender Brandon Teena (the subject of the film "Boys Don't Cry"); F.C. Martinez, a trans Navajo; and the butch black lesbian Sakia Gunn (profiled in the documentary "Out in the Night").

"Transgender activists have been trying to get people to care about murdered transgender Americans in a concerted way (especially through the use of film and television) since the founding of the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance in 1999," he wrote. "Race and class matter greatly here. The vast majority of murdered transgender women — year after year — are people of color. Many have been involved in sex work. Obviously, this should not make one less worthy of public mourning. But it seems that Americans prefer 'innocent victims,' and too often the conditions for innocence are reliant on white Christian ideas about who matters and how one should have lived."

One may wonder why conservative, right-wing Christians have seemed impervious to these memorializations, despite appealing to their Protestant values.

"Actually, Tyler Clementi's suicide in 2010 caused many conservative Christian groups to reassess their rhetoric about homosexuality. Clementi was an evangelical Protestant and many evangelicals started to worry that they would be depicted as responsible for teenage suicides because of their positions on homosexuality," Krutzsch wrote. "Most didn't change their views, but they became more concerned with how their teachings could traumatize LGBT adolescents."

Jane Clementi, Tyler Clementi's mother, serves as founder and CEO of the Tyler Clementi Foundation. In a statement to the B.A.R., she wrote that she's not familiar with Krutzsch's book "or how it uses Tyler's name."

"I have come to accept that Tyler's name and story are public and as such can be used to support many interesting ideas and opinions," she stated. "My hope is that Tyler's name will continue conversations that encourage kindness, respect, and inclusion for everyone. Shining a light on the fact that no one should be targeted or excluded in the workplace, health care system or from housing because of their sexual orientation. And everyone should be able to create a family through marriage and/or adoption regardless of who they love."

She added, "Legislation like the Equality Act will facilitate this into reality, but we also need to change hearts and minds by ending the misguided teachings and traditions of dogma, bias, and discrimination that stems from the misinterpretation of Scripture. Being gay is not a sin and once faith communities start sharing these positive messages that show compassion and love this world will not need legislation to mandate inclusion and respect. "

Krutzsch noted how these three martyrs have been used to advance LGBTQ assimilation into the mainstream, largely benefitting white, cisgender gays who are interested in monogamous matrimony and serving in the military, "reinforcing white, Christian, gender-conforming nuclear family as the cultural ideal. The political memorialization of these three did have some tangible impact, such as the passage of hate crimes bills following Shepard's murder and greater attention to LGBTQ teen suicides following Clementi's death. Of the three, Milk was the only activist.

"And, yes, we are in a place where people can have same-gender marriages but, in more than half the country, they can also get fired and evicted because they are queer," he wrote. "For me, the reverence of Milk, Shepard, and Clementi highlights the narrow racial and gender parameters of LGBTQ acceptance. How much social change can really take place when the most prominent images of a political movement are so similar — white, male, gender normative and, in the cases of Shepard and Clementi, Christian?"

Some change

Krutzsch sees some change away from assimilationist tactics following the Pulse Nightclub shooting four years ago.

"Many LGBTQ people responded to the largest mass killing of LGBTQ Americans in U.S. history with decidedly queer styles of memorializations that rejected the ideals of the dominant heterosexual culture, celebrating much of what straights found offensive about LGBT communities, using public mourning as a way to imagine a queerer world, such as a night of debaucherous dancing, over-the-top outfits, and well-choreographed lip-synching, anything subversive, weird, sexual, and non-normative, the answer to loss and indignity being to give a party and have a parade," Krutzsch wrote.

Krutzsch also expressed hope that the increasing reverence for trans activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson as political emblems will show how race creates the conditions where some lives are seen as having more value, and racism is not separate from LGBTQ politics. New York officials announced last year plans for a statue honoring the two women.

There are parallels about the recent progress of Pete Buttigieg as the first openly gay Democratic presidential candidate and the way he spoke about his sexuality.

"Pete Buttigieg's success supports my book's main arguments," Krutzsch wrote. "Buttigieg is basically Matthew Shepard grown up and living a political life. Like Shepard, Buttigieg is white, gender conforming, and, significantly, a practicing Protestant member of the Episcopal Church. He is a 'normal' gay American, made more palatable to the heterosexual public through his mainline Protestantism. In interviews and debates, Buttigieg talked about his Christianity in ways that resonated broadly."

Krutzsch wants readers to take away several things from his book.

"First, if you only think of religion as an opposing force to LGBTQ politics, you have missed how religion also shaped the parameters of LGBTQ inclusion in America," he wrote. "Secondly, the gradual acceptance of gays as 'normal' in America has always been a process of exclusion, especially to people of color, trans individuals, and to those unwilling to adhere publicly to the Protestant sexual standard of coupled monogamy. Finally, our ideas of 'normal' Americans have been shaped by a white Protestant vision of acceptable citizenship and we need to rebuke the narrow confines of the dominant heterosexual culture."

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