I walked through the cemetery, feeling nervous. It was silly to feel nervous. It was a small town cemetery in Delta, Utah, a place I had never even been before. The graves were arranged in rows and many had been there for several decades. Maybe I wasn’t nervous so much as a little afraid. I was afraid he was forgotten by his family just like he’d been forgotten by the rest of us.
I’d never met Gordon personally. He’d been killed when he was 28 years old. November 23, 1988, that was the day. The day before my tenth birthday, now that I think of it. I hadn’t even heard his name until I was in my mid-thirties.
As an out gay man in Utah, I had found myself playing amateur detective slash fledgling historian and looking into gay hate crimes. I’d been on a journey for several months, learning facts about those were taken too soon for being gay. Most of the murders remained unsolved. And among those that were solved, there had been very little justice. The killers, all men, had often used the gay panic defense. “He flirted with me, judge, and I couldn’t stop myself from violent murder.” And sometimes it had worked. Too often it had worked.
I had been driving to small town courthouses for several months now, finding the records rooms and asking for copies of the files, the ones open to the public. Lengthy court transcripts on some of them, troves of information. But there had been nothing like Gordon’s story. When I’d pulled into the small records room at the Millard County Courthouse, I had been flummoxed by the stacks of boxes containing the records. I spent a day in the waiting room scanning through them, then asked for copies. Several hours, and several hundred dollars later, I had driven home with a trunk full of white paper containing the decades old murder trials of the men who had killed Gordon.
Over the next several weeks, as I balanced raising kids and running a business, I spent my free time reading the transcripts and copiously taking notes on them. I learned about Gordon through this. I read through nearly 2000 pages of jury selection. I read the opening statements, the testimonies of his loved ones including his parents, the timeline of events and the exhausting lists of collected evidence. I read the medical testimonies of professionals who discussed the state of the body after he’d been found. It was horrible.
I had only been a child when he was killed, a Mormon kid in south-western Missouri. But no word spread. Nothing was mentioned about the young man brutally murdered for being gay. Another decade later, when Matthew Shepard was murdered in a similar way, it was all the media could talk about. But nothing about Gordon.
The trials read with intrigue, courtroom drama, high emotion, and twists and turns. The cast of characters that took shape in my mind was storied and complex and, in ways, unbelievable, dozens of figures cut from Utah Mormon molds, across all ages and spectrums. It was boring in places, dozens of pages in a row of evidence lists and legal jargon. And then the results: the death penalty for one man, and life in prison for another. My notes extended from tens of pages to hundreds.
At the end, I felt I knew Gordon in many ways. But I knew him only by what happened to him, by the terrible things those men did before they killed him even more terribly. I knew the terror he felt, the void he left in the lives of others. I had a little list of facts about where he’d lived and worked, a few notes about his friendships. But there was much more I didn’t know, I couldn’t know. I only knew he was important, and it had become crucial that I find him.
I found a map in the back of the cemetery that detailed the lists of graves in their layouts. And there he was, there was his name: Church, Gordon Ray. My heart rate had picked up while I walked to the cemetery. I saw a section of graves devoted to his family. I saw the grave of his grandmother, his father, and others. Simple and sweet graves with small epitaphs and lists of family relationships, birth and death dates. Simple facts to remember human lives, fading as those who loved them grew older. Cemeteries always make me so sad.
And then, I found Gordon. I saw the most beautiful headstone I had ever seen. A large, beautiful, well-kept headstone. A giant quote across the top read “When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.” His name, birth and death dates all in large blocked stone, and his family relationships outlined on the back.
And at the top, his picture. His handsome face shining out, his bright smile, his thick hair, his clear eyes, his trademark mole, all immortalized there. It was shocking, unexpected, beautiful.
Tears ran down my cheeks and I wrapped my arms around myself, looking at his photo. I had the sudden realization that he had been so loved. And more than that, that he had been remembered. And honored. In this simple little cemetery in this quiet little town, overlooking the landscape of the town he was raised in, Gordon had been honored.
I stayed there for several minutes. My mind raced with the details of the trial and what I knew about his life. I felt cold inside as I realized that in the casket below me, his remains were there. His body would still be broken, all these years later. What those men had done to him, how they had hurt him.
I eventually turned away, but I looked back at Gordon one last time. “I honor you. I remember you.”
And as I walked away, I knew I had a long journey ahead. I had a story to tell.