Rolling Queers

God-Hates-Fags

“My friends and I, we used to go down to the Salt Lake City Cemetery on Saturday nights, and we would roll queers there.”

I looked at the man, the murderer, with confusion on my face. “Roll queers?”

“Yeah. We’d go down, bash them up a bit, steal their jackets or shoes, take their stuff. Gay guys would hang out in the cemetery that night, so we knew where to find them.”

I could hardly hide my expression of disgust and shock as he told me this simple tidbit. Knowing this man would go on to brutally torture and kill a gay man just a few years later, in the late 1980s… hearing him casually talk about beating gay men up in his youth, it just felt like a blow to my stomach. I felt cold for the entire interview after that.

Later, after the video call ended and I could finally think clearly, I realized I was shaking. I splashed some cold water on my face, guzzled a bottle of water, and chomped on some chocolate that had been offered. I felt myself calm down. A few minutes later, I rejoined the camera crew at the table, and sat in heavy silence for a bit.

“That was intense,” I processed out loud. “Challenging on so many levels. On a personal level. He was charming. Charismatic. But there was a coldness to him. He was manipulating, lying at times. I can’t figure out why he talked to us. I mean, he seems like a nice man, someone who has been changed by nearly 30 years in prison. And as a social worker, I believe in prison reform. I believe people can change, that they deserve second chances. But I know what he did, what he is capable of.”

“What did he mean by ‘rolling queers’?” I looked up at the woman asking the question, knowing this story was new to her, and wondered what she must be thinking after an interview like that. I took a deep breath.

“It’s different, being gay, nowadays. There are gay bars, clubs, and phone apps. It’s easy to date, to find people to connect with. But back in the 1970s and 80s, it was different. It was dangerous to be gay.”

“Dangerous?”

“Absolutely dangerous. Coming out was impossible in a place like Salt Lake City. It could mean being disowned by family, being fired from jobs. There were gay bars back then, but guys like this might wait outside, to beat you up, to ‘roll’ you. Plus you had to register to get inside. And cops would patrol these places, arrest gay men, threaten to expose them unless they were paid off. It wasn’t exactly common, but it happened a lot. Gay men could lose their jobs, their church memberships, their families. And they could be attacked.

“But they still wanted to meet other gay men. They had to hide from everyone around them, and yet they needed to connect with others. They would sometimes go to public parks or other places, like libraries or cemeteries, to try to meet other guys. They might use fake names, afraid to be exposed in their public lives, but their need to connect with others was so great that it was worth the risk.

“I’m picturing these guys in the 80s, going down to a cemetery discreetly, walking the grounds and trying to meet other guys, catch their eyes. These guys could have been lawyers, bishops, dads. Just lonely guys in Utah. Have you been to the downtown cemetery? There are all these walking trails. It’s almost like a park.

“Anyway, imagine these guys, parking blocks away, nervous to be seen, walking through the park. And then being attacked by this group of violent teenagers. Their wallets are stolen, their jackets, their shoes, maybe their car keys. And then, punched, hurt, beat up, having to find their way home to tend to their wounds. Imagine the excuses they had to make to their families and coworkers. Imagine how scared they must have been to go out again. To be targeted like that, to be hurt, to be “rolled” just for being gay, that’s a hate crime. And sometimes these accidents resulted in permanent injury. Sometimes in death. What could they do, go down to the local police, say ‘I’m gay and I was attacked’? Imagine living like that!

“To see him sitting there, talking about ‘rolling queers’ as a regular pass-time, like he was talking about ‘tipping cows’. It’s like frat guys sitting around and casually discussing rape with terms like ‘banging chicks’. It just, it just makes me furious. It hurts me to hear it.”

The room was silent for a bit. Saying it all out loud helped me process, but the feelings didn’t go away. They stayed with me that night, and into the next morning. ‘Rolling Queers.’ It’s a different world now in 2018, but people are still attacked for being gay. I think back to last year’s Pride celebration and the group of so-called Christians standing outside with their messages of God’s hate for gay people. I think of a history of gay people being assaulted, of transgender people getting it even worse. I think of the men on the other ends of those blows and how they lived their lives thinking this was normal, that it was acceptable. How they went on to become fathers and how they spread their hate.

It’s going to take a few days for the images in my head to leave. In a weird way, working gone this project, I feel a bit like Truman Capote, during his work on In Cold Blood. I won’t dive into depression and alcoholism, I’ll process, open up, maybe even write a bit about what I’m going through, knowing that the end result, the final project, the documentary itself, has the potential to teach about our past, to remember the fallen, and to learn about ourselves.

5 Hate Crimes

hatecrimes

I’ve spent a lot of time recently researching gay hate crimes, especially those based here in Utah. Across history, there have been far more than you think, and most of them are never reported as hate crimes. As I talk about this research with others, I find how little understanding there is regarding what a hate crime actually is.

A hate crime is defined quite simply as “a crime motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudice, typically one involving violence.” A crime. A crime can be a robbery, an assault, a sexual assault, any form of abuse, vandalism, battery, unjust denial of rights, unfair discrimination or harassment in the workplace or community, or murder.

When people do think of ‘gay hate crimes’, they tend to only think of “gay-bashing”, in which someone is beat or harmed for being gay, or, in extreme cases, murder. And they usually think of young gay men, not transgender women. They don’t think of rape or abuse or discrimination. And when you ask people to list victims of hate crime, generally only one name comes to mind: Matthew Shephard.

It’s important to understand hate crimes so that we can work to not only educate about them and prevent them, but to prosecute people accordingly. There is a substantial difference between a violent crime against a person, and a violent crime against a person who is targeted because of their minority status. We must protect our citizens, no matter who they love or what religion they practice or what gender identity they embrace.

Below are five brief examples of different kinds of hate crimes. And while you may think that cases like this are rare, chances are you personally know someone who has been the victim of more than one of these crimes, and chances are you personally know at least one person who has committed one of these crimes.

  1. Mike and Brad walked down the road hand in hand, chatting idly about their days, when the older man saw them. He crossed the street and began to taunt the gay couple softly with hateful words. He walked just a few feet behind them, muttering “faggots” and “sissies” and he told them quietly that they weren’t safe there, that they should go back where they came from, that he and his friends would teach them a lesson if they ever returned. He kept his voice low so no one else could here. The man followed them for two full blocks as they walked swiftly, hearts pounding and hands clutched tightly, hoping they were safe before he finally turned away.
  2. Jan was only out as bisexual to a few friends in college. She had a boyfriend now, but in high school she’d had a girlfriend, and she got different things from her relationships with women than she did with men. She’d had two drinks at the party when Adam started bragging to Jan that she wouldn’t like chicks if she had had a real man. She tried laughing it off, but he wouldn’t let it drop. And she didn’t notice when he dropped the GHB into her drink. Later, he got her alone and she lay unconscious while he raped her in her own bed. The next morning, when she woke up, he was still next to her.
  3. Tyler’s dad hit him for the first time when he was 6 years old. Tyler had been mimicking the moves of the dancers on television, and his dad angrily struck him, saying no son of his would grow up to be a fag. Throughout the rest of his childhood, Tyler learned to act tough, to pretend to be interested in sports, and to always talk about the girls he liked, because the moment his dad saw any sort of “weakness” or femininity, Tyler ended up hit. When Tyler was 12, Tyler’s mother told him to just wait until he was 18, then he could finally be himself out on his own, but that seemed like an eternity away, and his nose was bloody now from the latest blow, and he wondered if the world would be a better place without him in it.
  4. Jacqueline knew it was dangerous to walk home by herself, she’d heard the stories. But it was midnight and she had to work in the morning, and she didn’t want to  stay out with her friends until the club closed. Tonight she was in a gorgeous black dress with heels, and she had on a gorgeous blonde wig with red fingernails and lipstick; she felt like a million bucks. In the morning, she would just be Jack again and back at her desk job, where her coworkers had no idea she was really a woman inside. Jacqueline stepped into the crosswalk in front of her building when the car hit her. She never knew who it was inside it, but she hit the ground and moments later felt the car back over her again, and then again before it drove away. She heard the man yell “FAG!” as he drove away, and then she fell unconscious, head bleeding and bones broken. She lay there for several minutes before someone noticed and called the ambulance.
  5. Alison looked at the picture of her wife and newborn son on her desk at work and she smiled. She had never believed a life like this was possible, her legally married with a son at home, in a beautiful apartment in the city and with a job as a paralegal that she loved. That afternoon, she was called into the Human Resources office, where the director informed her that there had been… complaints… (there had been such weight to that word) about Alison flaunting her lifestyle in the office. It was bad for morale, she was told, and it was affecting productivity. The company regretted it, she was told, but they felt it was best for Alison to pack up her things and look for work in an environment that was more supportive of Alison’s lifestyle (that word again). Alison placed her family picture in the cardboard box of belongings and walked out, tears streaming down her face.

At this point in my life, I know hundreds of LGBT people. Very few of those I know have been the victims of violent or blatant hate crimes. But nearly everyone I know has experienced discrimination in some form for being gay–the dirty looks from people on the street, the hateful words from family members, or the refusal of service at a restaurant. It has never been easier for LGBT people to find love and acceptance. But hate crimes still happen, and our history is full of them. It’s important to talk about them, to understand where we come from, and to open dialogues about the dangers we face.

Because every human deserves to feel safe and to have basic protections in place.

 

Matt

“Do you personally relate to Matthew Shephard? How did his death impact you?”

I furrowed my brow. I hadn’t expected that question. “I’d have to think about that a little bit.” I smiled up at the crowd for moment as they waited patiently. It was getting closer to 11 pm, and the crowd was awake, but we were all emotionally exhausted after the production of the Laramie Project that we had just witnessed.

The play had beautifully recreated the Matthew Shephard story. A group of actors had portrayed a few dozen people from Laramie, Wyoming in a rapid fire monologues, all based on interviews that took place after the horrible hate crime had taken place in 1998. Ranchers, friends of the victim, friends of the killers, drug addicts, bartenders, teachers, students, their only connection having been living in a small Wyoming town that had been  ravaged by a nosey and impossible media that flooded the town for a time, then left it abruptly when another story had come along.

I flashed my brain back to 1998, when I learned about Matthew’s murder. He was only months older than me, just shy of 22, and I was turning 20. I was a Mormon missionary at the time, barely out of high school, and steadily internally torturing myself for being gay, begging in prayers every night for an impossible cure. The first person I had baptized on my mission had been gay. And I knew other gay people. But the way I thought of them at the time, gay people, I thought of them as weak of character, like they had succumbed to temptation, like they hadn’t been strong enough to stop themselves from being gay. Not like me, I was strong enough to not be gay… but I hated myself at the time, because the temptations kept recurring, kept coming back.

The thoughts spread through me and I looked back up at the crowd, a sad smile on my face. I was there as a social worker with training in working with the LGBT community, and as someone who had spent time researching hate crimes in recent months. Earlier in the day, I had given a lengthy presentation to the students at Southern Utah University, and now I was here for a post-show discussion. This had been the toughest question so far.

“Well,” I started, eloquently, “I was basically the same age as Matthew Shephard. I was 20 at the time of his murder.” The time he was punched with fists, pistol-whipped with the butt of a gun, kicked and beat more after being tied to a fence, and then left to die overnight with his skull crushed. He’d been in a coma for days before finally dying. “I guess his death impacted me a lot, it impacted all of us a lot. I grew up gay and religious and in a small town too.”

My eyes moved over the crowd a bit and I breathed out slowly. “More than anything at the time, I remember how whenever anyone talked about Matt, they were finding ways to blame him for his own death. I remember people saying terrible things. If he hadn’t been gay, if he hadn’t flirted with those men, if he hadn’t gone out alone, if he hadn’t been at a bar, if he hadn’t been drinking, if he hadn’t been so flamboyant, if he hadn’t experimented with drugs, if he had been smarter and not gone off with those two men… if if if… then he wouldn’t have been killed. And no one was talking about the killers, no one was outraged in the same way I was outraged. I remember his death scared me. It was one more reason to not be out of the closet, because if I was out of the closet then I could get attacked and beat and killed like Matt had been. And in my brain, I figured that didn’t happen to people who weren’t gay. And in my brain, I guess I thought it was Matt’s fault too, at the time.

“And I didn’t realize that there had been hundreds of other men attacked and killed for being gay. I just knew about Matt. And I saw the protestors at his funeral, and I saw how his parents spoke up and chose not to pursue the death penalty for one of the killers, and I heard no words from the Church leaders that I looked to for guidance about it.

“And that was almost 20 years ago. And Matt didn’t live. I lived. If that had been me, all of the experiences I have had since then would be erased. I wouldn’t have served a mission, or gone to college, or had children. I lived, and Matt didn’t. And his family has had every day since then without Matt in their lives. His parents and his brother, his family and friends, they never got to see what he would become. So I guess Matt’s death affected me a lot.”

There was a pause before I decided I didn’t have anything else to say. The questions continued for a bit, and the evening ended, and there were hugs and handshakes and goodbyes. And then I was dropped back off at the hotel.

I looked out at the horizon in the dark over the nearby streets of Cedar City, Utah, and I felt temporary, as this would be one more moment that would soon be passed.

matt