Saturday, October 11, 2008


Matthew Shepard died ten years ago Sunday, October 12th, but one dead among thousands. I've heard people say that the reaction to his death was so strong because he was young, blonde, and cute. Maybe, but 30 years ago, a young man from Staten Island who was every bit as young, blonde, and cute as Matthew Shepard ended up dead on the West Side docks with his throat cut from ear to ear and the word "faggot" carved in his chest. No one, outside a handful of activists, even noticed or made a peep of protest. If Matthew Shepard's death means anything, then it's because people finally noticed the violence and brutality that has always been in their midst.

The word “martyr” has become very inflated currency lately. Nihilistic religious fanatics, who indiscriminately kill everyone around them and themselves, use the word to justify acts of mass murder and suicide. Certain angry bishops who’ve announced for years their intention to quit their church, and find themselves fired, claim to have been “martyred.” Bullies who get called out by the bullied, tend to think of themselves as “martyrs.”

Our martyrs never sought their fate. They wanted to be anything but victims, and to lead long and happy lives like everyone else. They weren’t any more saintly than anyone else. Their ambitions in life were largely modest ones, not to rule the world, but to survive and make a happy life in it. Martyrdom was thrust upon them. Martyrdom found them in parking lots, back alleys, basements, bars, hiking trails, parks, streets, highways, hotels, hospitals, prisons, classrooms, and at home. And when it came, it was never welcome. A lot of ours have walked that Via Dolorosa all the way to the end. Fear, humiliation, suffering, and death were anything but metaphorical for them. For our martyrs those things were all too literally real.

And certainly, those legions who died of AIDS, especially in the early years where the agony of death was compounded by neglect and maltreatment, deserve a place in our company of martyrs.

LGBT folk have far too many martyrs. Violence is a reality that every LGBT person regardless of race, class, or gender has to live with daily. The constant threat of violence shapes our decisions large and small; whether or not to wear a certain piece of clothing, walk down a certain street, or to live in a certain city or state or country.

Below is a very small sample of the thousands carried off by violence:

Sakia Gunn – 2003

Rebecca Wight (no picture available) – 1988

Charlie Howard (no picture available, above is his memorial in Bangor, Maine) -- 1984

32 Victims of the Upstairs Lounge Fire, New Orleans – 1973
Here are some of the broadcast news reports.

Alan Turing – 1954

Erwin Schimitzek, a store clerk from Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), arrested for homosexuality, and sent to Auschwitz where he died. He is one of the unknown thousands of LGBTs murdered by the Nazis – 1943

Jacques Chausson (no picture available, above is a drawing by Rene Boyvin) -- 1661

Giovanni di Giovanni (no picture available, above is A. Lorenzetti’s Injustice) -- 1365

Since the transgendered are the most visible and least assimilated group in our community, and since their very existence challenges traditional gender concepts, they are the most frequent targets of homophobic violence. Here is a website devoted exclusively to remembering the transgendered dead.

+Grant to the departed eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them.
May their souls and the souls of all the departed through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

I say it’s time to close this Book of Martyrs. Our Fellowship of the Martyrs should have no more new members.



Counterlight said...

One of the things I find so striking about all these murders is their savagery. It's as if it wasn't enough to simply kill these people. So much of the violence in these crimes is gratuitous, far beyond what is necessary to be lethal.

I think there is a very dark place in a corner of the human mind (especially in some men) where the phallus is sovereign and privileged. People believe in the sanctity of the penis before they believe in God; and MORE than they believe in God.

Brian R said...

So moving and yet this is but the tip of the i"ceberg. All of us who GLBT can say there but for the Grace of God"
Thank you

Anonymous said...

There is so much excess anger, excess violence... Apparently we don’t know how to handle/defuse it.

And it’s true about the silence. Only the murders of Fanny Ann Eddy 2004, Sakia Gunn 2003, Matthew Shepard 1998 and Harvey Milk 1978 hit the news over here.

No more martyrs!

Fran said...

No more martyrs indeed!

Oh Counterlight, thank you for this. I just allowed myself to become entangled in a comment argument on a Catholic blog on a post that was sympathetic to LGBT matters.

You know what side I came down on.

Anyway, this post of yours is a blessing to see right after that.

What you say in your comment about the savagery really hits hard in its truth.

No more martyrs indeed!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks for this. Sad to say, at first I thought, “OK, a few more photos of martyrs,” but then the sheer number made me stop and reflect more deeply! Thank you for this.

Today I posted a powerful icon “The Passion of Matthew Shepard” by Father William Hart McNichols. It’s based on the report of the officer who found Matthew after he was beaten and left to die -- covered with blood except for where the tears ran down.

Leonard said...



Counterlight said...

Keep in mind folks that these are just the high profile cases. For every one of those, there's a dozen more that barely rate a mention in the police blotter of the local news.

I've known a few of those, and so do you.

Doorman-Priest said...

A sobering post Brian. Thank you.

Tim said...

Counterlight, Fran sent me your way with a note that this was a post I should most definitely see. Of course, she was absolutely right.

Thank you for reminding us first that all our martyrs are iconic individuals and second, when taken together, they represent thousands and thousands of others, many of whose names or faces we'll never know.

I particularly thank you for including the New Orleans fire image. Some years ago, my partner and I did a "gay walking tour" of the city. At one point, the docent stopped on a random corner, pointed down the street, and started the story with, "It happened a few blocks from here in that direction..." By the end, our faces streamed with tears. I reached for my partner's hand; it was clenched into a fist.

I pray that each of us--and millions like us--make "No more martyrs!" a rallying cry every day of the year, every hour of the day.

Bless you for this very important post.

Paul said...

Thank you, Counterlight, for this post. Thanks to Fran for pointing me to it. Thanks to those who commented above.

May we all have the courage and the persistence to keep saying NO MORE MATYRS.

Anonymous said...

Precisely the savagery, the excess violence unnecessarily used is in fact one of the chiefest criteria in which tells us a violent crime is a hate crime.

When there are 62 stabs, instead of the single needed to kill a human being…

It is indeed shocking that there is so much reluctance around in the USA to accnowledge this.

Davis said...

I'm fighting back tears. Thank you for so powerfully saying and showing this.

James said...

This is a brilliantly sobering post, Counterlight.

June Butler said...

Counterlight, what a powerful post. I'm late getting to it. Enough, indeed!

I remember the fire.

Unknown said...

Great article with much to think about.. However, one big oversight in my opinion.

The name of the Staten Island victim, 30 years ago, is not mentioned. And, unsuprisingly, Google search didn't help.

Most our martyrs stay unknown?