Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | October 13, 2011

ON THE OUT SIDE OF THE CLOSET DOOR

(Original version published in The Arcata Eye, October 20, 1998, Arcata, CA under the title “The ugly, sometimes fatal face of homophobia” – slightly revised, October 13, 2011)

I don’t get a lot of e-mail, which is mostly O.K. with me. I like hearing from friends, but sometimes I get stuff that makes me glad I’ve got a delete button. Of course then there are those times when a delete button isn’t enough to make something go away.

That was how I felt when I checked my e-mail one recent morning and learned of the horrifying crimes committed on October 6, 1998 upon University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, “a slight 5-foot, 2-inch man who wore braces on his teeth” (New York Times).

The New York Times (10/10/98) put it this way: “… the passing bicyclist thought the crumpled form lashed to a ranch fence was a scarecrow. But when he stopped, he found the burned, battered and nearly lifeless body of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student who had been tied to the fence 18 hours earlier.”

The BRANDING IRON, the U. of Wyoming newspaper, in covering the arraignment of suspects, reported: “Reading from court documents, [Judge Robert] Castor said Shepard was ‘struck in the head with a pistol,’ and the suspects allegedly ‘beat him, while he begged for his life.'”

I’ll spare you further details. If you want more information, and you have net access, check out the BRANDING IRON’s web site, http://bi.uwyo.edu/special.htm*  I’m sure you’ll find enough to answer any questions or curiosity you might have. There are a lot of articles posted about the attack, the alleged perpetrators, the victim’s personal life, the university’s reaction, and the descent of hordes of journalists onto peaceful college town, Laramie.

Or check out any of the media coverage, there’s certainly been enough of it. I think you’ll find that everyone seems to be in agreement on one point: This would never have happened if Matt Shepard had been heterosexual.

I had to stop reading all the articles. I was horrified, struck with a kind of free floating terror. And I was angry, furious, with no outlet for my anger.

This is all too much like what happened to Louis Pearson on May 2nd of this year [1998], just a little south of here on a back road in Mendocino County.

The weekend of May 1-4 I was in Lake County for a gathering of gay and bisexual men. Louis Pearson had come up from Aptos, near Santa Cruz, for the event. He registered Saturday morning, I know because I was registrar for the event. It was his first time attending one of these gatherings. Although he knew no one there he seemed to be open and friendly enough and I figured he would meet folks and find a place for himself in the group.

Many of us, including myself, spoke with him during the brief time he was there. But none of us got to know him very well.

For reasons of which we’ll never be certain, he left the grounds of the resort around 6:00 PM that same Saturday.

I never saw him again.

Sunday evening, after dinner, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office called and informed us that Louis’ body had been discovered that morning about ten miles from the gathering. They found a flyer for our event in his car. They said they had reason to suspect a hate crime.

We didn’t learn the full details of what had been done to Louis until later. Here’s how the Ukiah Daily Journal (09/10/98) described it: “Pearson died from ‘blunt force trauma to the head and neck,’ according to a Sonoma County pathologist’s report. In addition to being beaten, a piece of tree branch had been shoved up one nostril into his brain.”

The Ukiah Journal reported further: “…Pearson allegedly fondled [accused killer Richard Anthony] Fernandez and made sexual advances. Fernandez, who told detectives he had been sexually abused regularly by his father from the time he was a young child until he was about 14, became enraged.”

Louis was then beaten by Fernandez and two other men so savagely that the rancher who found his body was uncertain at first whether he was looking at his face or the back of his head.

This was a man I had been talking with the day before. A man who I had hugged and welcomed.

I was scared. We were all scared. Shocked, angered, horrified and scared. Because I knew then, as I know now about Matt Shepard, that Louis would still be alive if he had not been gay.

Tragic indeed, you might say, but what has this got to do with Arcata? I mean, we all know how liberal and open Arcata is, how tolerant and sensitive to the diversity that exists among its inhabitants, students and visitors. And for the most part, I think it is.

I am a gay man who comes to Arcata daily to work and who has lived in this county for over 16 years and I’m telling you I’m still plenty scared here – and with reason. Here follows a partial list of incidents, large and small, of which I have direct knowledge. Rest assured, there have been a lot more.

Let’s start with the night in 1993 when the first Gay Pride Day Proclamation was read out loud in the Arcata City Council chambers. I was there, excited and hopeful. But homophobia was there too in the form of then-councilman Carl Pellatz who stood up and, with a petulance I found astonishing, walked out of the chamber in protest at the reading of the Proclamation he had fought so hard to defeat.

That same year a plaza business, normally open on a Sunday afternoon, closed its doors from the beginning of the Gay Pride celebration until it was over. To be fair, they have been open each year since. But that doesn’t change the effect their closing had on us that day, in the community we thought had welcomed us.

And remember, we don’t just exist in a vacuum called Arcata. We are also part of the greater communities of Humboldt County, and Northern California. San Francisco and Santa Rosa newspapers are distributed here, and treated as local.

In 1995 I helped organize a gay men’s gathering at a remote location in Humboldt County. Apparently we weren’t remote enough. Drunken men drove their trucks into our private campground to get a look at the queers.  Several of our parked cars were broken into with nothing stolen, simply to vandalize them. People were harassed. Finally the Humboldt Co. Sheriff’s dept. asked me to announce to everyone attending that they recommended no one leave our campground except in groups of 4 to 6. Word, I was told, had gotten out that we were there and the deputies could not guarantee our safety if we left the campground.

In the spring of this year, 1998, the owner of a resort in the greater Santa Rosa area attempted to place a want ad in the Press-Democrat. The ad was for an office manager and it mentioned that the resort was “gay friendly.” The Press-Democrat refused to run the ad with that phrase in it. Please note: The ad did not ask for a gay office manager, nor state that non-gay applicants need not apply (I saw the rejected ad copy). It simply stated that the resort was “gay friendly.” The Press-Democrat appeared to find that sufficient reason to refuse to run it. Would they have refused if the resort had been described as “family oriented”? What exactly could the Press-Democrat find objectionable, other than the word “gay” itself?

Around that same time, I was preparing to write an article (since abandoned) about the Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual/Transgendered Pride parades held in Arcata every year. As part of my research I interviewed some members of the organizing committee, one of whom, an Arcata resident, surprised me by asking to be quoted anonymously, citing fear of reprisals against a family member if they were identified as gay in a newspaper.

Let’s drop back down to Mendocino County for a moment. In the 04/29/98 issue of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a front page article entitled “The Rage Of A Privileged Class” was little more than a recapitulation of all the standard negative cliches about gay men that have been used over the last decades to try and discredit us. Imagine finding an article on the front page of a local newspaper which offered up as fact statements that all African American men were lazy, shiftless, welfare abusers cruising around in new cadillacs looking for a white woman. If you found that last sentence shocking and unacceptable, you’re getting the idea. The Anderson Valley Advertiser is distributed throughout Arcata, often found in a rack right next to the Eye.

To get back to Humboldt County: During this year’s Redwood Acres fair a friend of mine was followed around by three young men who taunted and harassed him. They called him “faggot,” “queer,” and a few other things this paper probably can’t print. They then followed him to the parking lot where they threatened him and slashed his tires.

My friend reported this to the Eureka Police. The officer he spoke with, after determining that my friend really was gay, told him that he’d best learn to live with the harassment. He, the officer, was himself on the short side and had been teased about it all his life. But, he assured my friend, he’d learned to live with it. Now I wonder, when was the last time that the officer’s life had been threatened because he was short? I wonder if there is a law somewhere that I don’t know about, forbidding short people to marry outside their height range?

My friend then tried contacting the Sheriff’s office. They were not much help either. Apparently they felt no crime had taken place.

And even at the Earth First! protest at Grizzly Creek homophobia finds its place. I read a transcript of the video tape recorded just before David Chain was killed. You know what the worst thing that logger could think of to call the protesters was? “C********rs.”

But homophobia isn’t always so obvious and easy to pin down. The Arcata Eye has, since its inception, covered the Gay Pride Parades, the movement to pass a domestic partnership ordinance, and whatever other gay issues arise locally. And founder/editor Kevin Hoover provided fine coverage of the parade when he was with the Humboldt Beacon.

This year, with I’m sure the best of intentions, the Arcata Eye’s front page coverage of the parade essentially de-gayed the event, making us invisible at our own celebration. No mention was made of what it was that all these people were claiming to be so proud of. The words “gay” or “lesbian” were not used anywhere in the coverage.

Does this, as was suggested by a letter in a recent issue of the GALA NEWS, make the Arcata Eye a homophobic publication?

No, not necessarily. But it does make it a medium for transmission of a tacit, unspoken homophobic attitude which can itself be dangerous for the unintended message it conveys: that queer peoples are best left tolerated but unacknowledged.

And yes, that cover story scared me. All of these things have scared me.

Every day of my life I have to deal with the possibility that the wrong person is going to find out that I’m gay.

The possibility that someone will decide the world would be a better place without queers like me in it, or that beating me is the perfect way to prove that he’s not “one of them.”

The possibility that I, or any one of my friends or lovers, might one day be found hanging, half-dead, tied to a barbed wire fence along a country road, and the further possibility that that fence, that road, could be in Arcata as easily as Laramie.

I may have learned to live with this fear, I have had to, but I really do not like it. I don’t like being in a restaurant and feeling afraid to start telling a friend about the new guy I’ve been dating for fear the wrong person might overhear us and start something. I don’t like being afraid to kiss a date goodnight, for fear that someone might see us. I don’t like being afraid to look at an attractive man on the street. And I really don’t like being afraid to think of what might happen if this article actually gets published.

The easiest and most tempting thing to do when, again, I get my face shoved into the cruel, hateful violence of queer-bashing is to retreat from anyone who isn’t queer; to isolate into what some call the “Castro Street of the mind” and avoid anyone I don’t know well and anyplace where I’m not certain of my safety. And that can be very easy to do. I found it happening after Louis’ murder in May, and after that gathering in 1995.

But I can’t allow that to happen. It’s important, for my sanity, that I not use queer-bashing, whether it be by baseball bat or ballot measure, as an excuse to withdraw from non-queer people.

I need to remind myself of the many non-queer friends I have, and of the many non-queer people who support the concept of equal rights for ALL people.

I need to remind myself that we have ALL been indoctrinated with homophobia since childhood and that there are many people, queer and not, who are doing everything they can to defeat it in themselves and in society at large.

And maybe someday, working together, we will defeat it. But for right now homophobia is strong, healthy, and dangerous. Anytime I open my mouth, or publish an article like this, or take my lover’s hand in public I become a potential target. That is a simple truth that must be factored into my life, acknowledged and prepared for – but I can’t let it run my life and I won’t let it hold me back.  So even though I have made a commitment to myself to be as out and unashamed of who I am as I can be, I still have to remember to be careful, because it is dangerous here, on the out side of the closet door.

* The link cited in this article is now gone.  Here is the current result of a Matt Shepard search on The Branding iron site: http://www.brandingirononline.info/2009/03/31/th-annual-shepard-symposium-feature-hiphop-films-elton-john/

m.j.arcangelini
written 10/14/98, Fields Landing, CA

revisions 10/13/2011, Sebastopol, CA

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Responses

  1. Powerful, Joe. I don’t recall reading this before. I wanted to mention a glimmer of hope: you may know that I go to a Tuesday night rock and roll church service. Some years ago, before the Tuesday night thing really became what it is now, I heard the main pastor who teaches at that service tell his Sunday morning congregation (which is one of the biggest Southern Baptist churches in Tennessee) that when gay people are encountered they should be greeted with love, not hate. “Ya’ll don’t do that. That’s wrong”. This guy speaks with an authority that is pretty convincing no matter where you come down on the issues of church and God. I was amazed. And encouraged for those who face this issue, especially here in the South (not all that different from northern California, southern Oregon in some ways) where this issue is still very much alive.

  2. much appreciate your thoughtful, well sourced and grounded commentary.
    You communicate our realities movingly and with compassion and authority.
    thanks.

  3. Thank you. The piece was written in response to all the comments i was hearing in the wake of Shepard’s murder that such things couldn’t happen here, in enlightened northern CA. I just wanted to point out that they can and do happen here. The reaction when it was published was very positive. It’s the only piece i’ve even published that had people stopping me on the street to thank me.


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