amw (amw) wrote,
amw
amw

sorry, more navel-gazing

Recently i watched the documentary What Killed Michael Brown? It was written by a conservative, and it very much has an agenda. The other day i linked to a book by bluesman Adam Gussow. I should also link to his blog about Ferguson that i think provides a bit more of a balanced view than the movie did: The Straw that Broke: Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, and Two True Tales Told by Obama’s DOJ. Even though i think the documentary unfairly dismisses some of the DOJ findings, it's a fascinating film to watch.

What i found most interesting about the movie and some of the ensuing discussions, was how much it reminded me of another young man's death that got politicized in a way that was more meaningful to me personally: Matthew Shepard.

For those who don't know, Matthew Shepard was a young gay man who was bound, beaten and left for dead in Laramie, Wyoming back in 1998. His case became an international sensation. He was an attractive white boy (we call them "twinks" in the gay community) who appeared to have been the victim of a couple of violent, homophobic rednecks. It made for a wonderful story. He was used as a concrete example of how gay people are still oppressed and abused in modern society, especially in rural areas. He became a martyr for the cause of gay rights.

Later on it came out that he was a meth head, that he had previously had sexual relations with his apparently "homophobic" assailant, and that it's likely the whole thing was a drug-related crime and not a hate crime. But that context didn't matter. The case was already closed. It's the myth that persisted.

For people outside of the gay scene, i can't stress just how much of an impact this death had in our community. This kid became an icon of gay rights. There were movies made, books written, you name it. Hell, when i passed through Wyoming a few years ago, pretty much the only thing i knew about the state was that it was the place where Matthew Shepard was killed.

The weird thing is, even when you know the reality... It's still the story - or "poetic truth" as Shelby Steele puts it in his movie about Michael Brown - that matters.

I don't consider myself a religious person. I have wavered between mildly new age and flat-out atheist in my life. I can understand the appeal of religion, and i can see the comfort it brings to many of my friends, but personally i don't feel much need for it in my life. It feels unnecessary to me, stodgy, old-fashioned, limiting. And yet... And yet, i can't deny the power of these stories - even when i know them to be fiction! Matthew Shepard's death meant a lot to me. I can't pretend it didn't. It felt like it opened my eyes to a world that hated me and my friends at the time. It also brought international attention to fringe hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. The sense of oppression somehow gave me comfort, it gave me a group of my own.

At the time that it all went down, i had just moved from a rural town in Australia to the big city. My roommates were gay men. I was still a teenage boy, blonde and girlish and an occasional patron of gay bars and discos where i was read as a twink. I hadn't yet really considered the possibility that i might be trans. I was uncomfortable with the idea of being gay, but i also didn't feel very comfortable being straight either, and i didn't know what i was. Seeing a boy not much older than me, who got beaten to death just for being girly, that story spoke to me! Maybe he wasn't exactly like me, but there was some connection there.

The weird thing is that i had lived there, in an Australian equivalent of that small town. And... nobody ever beat me. I hated that everyone listened to country music. I hated that everyone had a car. I knew i stood out as a bit of an effeminate, cosmopolitan weirdo - that's why i moved to the city! But thinking back... i didn't get any more abuse in the short time that i lived there than i did anywhere else. In fact, i have been on the receiving end of homophobic or (i suppose) transphobic taunts at least as much in big cities as in small towns. My personal experience doesn't paint countryfolk as raging, murderous bigots, and i don't think the statistics show it either. But it's the story people in the city like to tell, since most of us "escaped" those small towns.

There are other stories. There is a fantastic show that came out this year called P-Valley that is a neo-noir set in a strip club in the Mississippi Delta. One of its lead characters is a flamboyantly gay black man. That's the sort of person that urban liberals like to pretend doesn't exist in the country. Maybe it doesn't, not to the extent it's portrayed in this TV show, but even 20+ years ago, in that time of Matthew Shepard, there were gay people in the country, there were trans people in the country. I remember seeing documentaries about them in high school. I just kinda closed off to it after i moved to the city.

I guess i am thinking about this a bit more now that i am, once again, out here in a country town.

I'm also thinking about it because last week was Transgender Day of Rememberance, which is a memorial that came about in my generation and in my social circles. It's about remembering the trans people (mostly women of color) who were killed each year, with the implication that they were victims of transphobia. In fact, trans people don't appear to be killed at a greater rate than other people, and it's probably fair to say we are mostly killed for reasons other than our gender identity, but those facts are less important than the myth. TDOR is valuable for the same reason Black Lives Matter is valuable. We are both a minority whose deaths are generally ignored or misrepresented by the media, so creating an occasion to shine a light on us helps to give our "community" a voice.

The frustrating thing is that the voice is rarely a voice that i feel speaks for me. And any voices that try to speak beyond the myth - which we need to do if we want to tackle real problems and not just throw propaganda around - are often silenced or marginalized.

It goes back to this sort of postmodern - or perhaps essentially traditional - belief that stories matter at least as much as statistics. I sit here on LiveJournal and tell my story. I read all of y'all's stories. I perceive so much of society through the lens of how the people whose stories i read perceive it. The facts are right there, sometimes telling a different story, but they don't seem to matter. Even though i know that objectively they should!

I dunno what i am trying to stay. I guess, that i am conflicted. It's all sprung from this incredible frustration i had at that band of "activists" indirectly using my identity as a stick to beat a perfectly reasonable bystander who once upon a time would have been an ally. I am so tired of hearing my story get told like "all trans people suffer like this" or "all women are oppressed like that" and everyone who disagrees is a fascist. No. Fuck. No. That's taking this respect for storytelling, which is really supposed to be about individuals and nuance, and twisting one story into a mindless dogma. Life is more complicated than that.

Most of the time i forget that i am trans. Or a woman. Or gay. I suppose i'm asexual now, which apparently is another oppressed minority. I'm an immigrant too! And mentally ill! Gotta catch 'em all. Usually i have no reason to think about any of it. It rarely has an external impact on my life, because i live in a place and a time where society enjoys a fantastic amount of diversity and equality. I know i am privileged to be white and rich and educated and living in one of the most liberal countries in the world. But i wasn't always in a white-majority society and i wasn't always rich and i wasn't always educated and i wasn't always in one of the most liberal countries in the world. It still never sucked the way i'm told it's supposed to suck for people like me.

Which isn't to say that it never sucked. Or that i don't listen to the stories of people for whom it still sucks. Or that there aren't any injustices in modern society. I just wish people would look beyond the myths from time to time.
Tags: gender, looking back, politics
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