When Matthew Shepard’s body was found - pistol-whipped, burned and tied to a fence - he was mistaken for a scarecrow. The fatal 1998 beating of a gay teen so shocked and repulsed the country that it ushered in an era of hate-crime legislation with the goal that nobody would again suffer Shepard’s fate. In 2009, President Barack Obama enshrined this thinking into federal law with the Matthew Shepard Act. The Obama administration oversaw a renaissance of queer progress - open military service, pop culture visibility and the right to marry - under social media banners such as “love wins” and “it gets better.”
And yet this weekend, as a plaque for Shepard was announced by Washington National Cathedral, where his body is interred, queer America lit up in bloodthirst, delighting in the spectacle of two 11th-graders who fought each other over one calling the other a gay slur. The recipient of the slur, Jordan Steffy, slapped his aggressor resoundingly before unleashing a torrent of punches as classmates recorded it from all angles and their teacher issued a halfhearted reprimand. The school suspended both boys - Steffy for longer - and Steffy’s mother reportedly has pulled him out of school, opting to home-school him instead.
What about any of that is worth celebrating, let alone holding up as exemplary behavior?
And yet “gay Twitter” exploded with cheer. “This baby slapped him with the hands of Harvey Milk and EVERY ancestor at Stone Wall,” wrote one fan. “I am def always against violence of any kind,” wrote the fashion designer Prabal Gurung, who is often celebrated for his inclusivity and feminism, “but this video felt cathartic.”
Pete Buttigieg, who came out in 2015, at 33, and is the United States' first openly gay presidential candidate, said nothing. Neither did Adam Rippon, Ellen DeGeneres, Ellen Page, Alphonso David or his Human Rights Campaign, nor Melania Trump, who leads a "Be Best" campaign that opposes bullying. Without comment, Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew, retweeted a story about how Steffy “claps back.” Where were all the queer celebrants of Michelle Obama’s mantra that “when they go low, we go high”? People were busy amplifying and empowering the very theater of violence for which they had berated Jussie Smollett’s alleged hate-crime stagecraft earlier in the year. In addition, these brawling students were both white and male; who knows what Twitter would’ve made of the same fight playing out if they were of another race or gender?
That’s the problem with mobs: Mood is law, and whim is wisdom.
Yes, the first pride parade was a riot, but that is no longer how we advance civil rights. The ink is not yet dry on queer progress, after all. We must avoid slipping into regression, machismo and disrespect for human dignity. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 26 percent of gay men, 37.3 percent of bisexual men, 43.8 percent of lesbians, and 61.1 percent of bisexual women have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner (compared with 35 percent of straight women and 29 percent of straight men). In 2015, 11 percent of those violent LGBT incidents involved a weapon. Transgender victims are more likely to be assaulted in public. Bandwagon pressures no doubt compelled some survivors to cheer the brutality they faced themselves.
Queers pride themselves on being empathetic, being progressive, being creative and being on the right side of history. Steffy’s fans embody none of those ideals. People who invoke violence as “standing up for yourself” are no better than those who invoke it for “standing your ground.” Those who call it “cathartic” are intellectualising and rationalising primal satisfaction at bloodlust. (How is “I don’t condone violence, but . . .” any different from “I’m not a bigot, but. . .”?) When the oppressed gain power by employing the tools of their oppressors, they are perpetuating the cycle of violence.
Queer progress hasn’t just rewritten the rules on family, marriage, honor, professionalism, faith and community. It has rewritten the core of human existence - the one word God used to define Himself: love. If gay activism has such power over love, why is it so weak in the presence of hate? How are love’s revolutionaries also hate’s ruffians?
Let’s hope Steffy’s parents know the answer. He won’t be learning it in school. Or in retweets.