Most of the homophobia I have encountered and confronted is subtle. Many modern homophobes are getting smart enough to avoid open displays of bigotry, so you rarely see anyone standing on the street corner holding a “God hates fags” sign (unless, of course, you are looking at the Rev. Fred Phelps). But sometimes it doesn’t take much provocation for ignorance to surface.
Anyone who spent time on York Street last Tuesday night learned this firsthand. Tuesday was the six-year anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming who fell victim to a homophobic hate crime. Toad’s Place invited the musician Beenie Man, whose lyrics explicitly call for the burning and hanging of homosexuals, to perform in New Haven on that very evening.
Despite Beenie Man’s connections to hate crime in Jamaica (recent events include the June 9 murder of a prominent gay activist), the cancellation of over two-thirds of his shows over the past few months, and the horrible irony of the show’s coinciding with the anniversary of such a shocking instance of hate crime, Toad’s refused to cancel the show. Out of respect for the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, a candlelight vigil seemed the most appropriate manner of expressing our disappointment and frustration that Toad’s would pay and provide a local forum for a musician who spreads such hateful, violent messages.
Vigil participants handed out fliers informing concertgoers of the reasons for our presence and for the candlelight protest. One man asked me about Matthew Shepard, and after I explained the tragic story of Shepard’s murder, the man glared at me and said, disgustedly: “Oh, so he was a homo.” Then he scoffed, shrugged as if Shepard’s sexual orientation explained everything, and walked into Toad’s. I was speechless.
Unfortunately, this instance was by no means rare on Tuesday. Vigil members were called “faggots.” Protesters were asked about their sexual orientation and received responses of “that’s disgusting” to any assertions of a queer identity. I can’t enumerate the number of glares and jeers heaped upon the protesters. One group of people waiting in line started laughing, pointing at us and using the term “chi-chi man” (derogatory slang applied to gay men), a phrase which Beenie Man frequently includes in his lyrics.
Those concertgoers who did stop for a moment usually did so with the intent to confront rather than converse. Anyone, student or community member, who did acknowledge the devastating implications of Beenie Man’s hate speech denied that attending the show meant personally supporting it. Frequent justifications included: “I don’t care, I’m not going to ruin my night,” “So what? People are killed all the time,” “My aunt is gay,” “I have lots of gay friends” and — my favorite — “You need to lighten up.” Obviously, the vigil revealed far more than the evident disrespect on Toad’s part and violent homophobia on Beenie Man’s part.
Overwhelmed by such blatant ignorance and bigotry, I found myself looking around at our small vigil group. In the weeks leading up to the vigil I had been inundated with e-mails from Yalies, faculty, alumni and community members who enthusiastically supported such an important cause. Where was everyone? I wished that everyone could witness the explicit homophobia revealing itself in front of us, if for nothing but to drive home the point that homophobia is very much alive in our town and on our campus.
I have received a handful of messages over the past few weeks from members of the Yale queer community who consider this effort a waste of time on a trivial or futile cause. But those who are critical of such activism or who do not make any effort to support such causes ignore the threat of hatred and violence which is a reality, even if it does not always appear to rear its ugly head within our Yale microcosm. Anyone at the vigil who was called “faggot” or stared down or confronted for unabashedly opposing homophobia can attest to this.
How do you even begin to address such explicit bigotry as that which we witnessed Tuesday? Events such as the vigil are precisely the starting point. It is imperative that we take such opportunities to discourage and oppose violent, bigoted rhetoric and to begin building awareness and understanding.
Hate crime does not appear out of thin air. It stems from ignorance, homophobia and articulated hatred. It is no coincidence that the same people calling me “faggot” last night paid money to support an artist who calls for queers to be burned and hanged. These hateful sentiments are not limited to song lyrics, but add ammunition to the homophobia that is an undeniable presence here.
Members and allies of the Yale queer community, comfortably situated within our Yale “bubble” of acceptance and tolerance, can no longer presume to be untouched by the anti-gay rhetoric that directly fuels anti-gay violence. I, for one, came face-to-face with such unconcealed hatred and ignorance on Tuesday. Toad’s Place invited it here, welcoming the people who called us faggots as they waited in line. This should serve as a wake-up call for anyone remotely interested in eliminating bigotry and violence from our community.
Loren Krywanczyk is a junior in Silliman College.