Everyone has those “remember where you were when you heard X” moments in their life. One of the prominent ones in my life was 20 years ago today. I was sitting in my bedroom eating dinner and watching TV. It was October 7th, 1998 and I was 15. 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die, which he did 5 days later.
And if you want to watch the iconic news broadcast from October 12th in full, it’s here.
My own journey to figure out who (or what) I was was still nascent and confusing. It would still be another 7 years before I came out, but the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming was, for many (myself included), a watershed moment in queerness.
If one looked to mark gay/queer culture in North America by epoch, the 80s and early 90s were dominated by HIV. The late 90s and early 2000s, I contend, were dominated by greater connections made thanks to the internet, and to physical violence. We even had a term for it – gay bashing. Interestingly, this rise (and subsequent fall) can be seen in Google’s ngram viewer:
Shepard’s beating was the basis for the season-ending plot arc on the US version of Queer as Folk in 2001 at a time when the show was starting to become a staple of cable TV, and which I would sneakily watch in my shared dorm room at university when my roommate was elsewhere (the older among you will recall this was before youtube or catch-up or even the ability to watch videos on the internet at all!).
The story, and the reaction of the residents of Laramie was turned into the play The Laramie Project, which was put on at the campus theatre in about 2004, I think. I daren’t audition for fear it would let someone peek in the closet (despite playing a gay character that died of AIDS the previous year, but that’s a story for another post). The play featured interviews done by the playwriting collective with residents of the town, and explicitly did not show Matthew’s murder. I’ve also never seen footage of the actual fence to which he was tied and beaten to death, but in my mind, I have had the same still image associated with the event for the last 20 years.
And it might be convenient to consign these horrific events to the past, but they still occur regularly around the world. Maybe because they are now perceived as being more common, or because they no longer shock or resonate as they once did, they no longer receive either the media attention or national outcry they did 20 years ago. But let us not be complacent – there is still a great deal of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment out there.
In the UK, a newspaper columnist decried the “state transgender agenda“. And half of LGBTQ+-identifying 14 year olds reported self-harming. Some places still refuse to fly the Pride flag.
In Australia, 25 people were charged with hate-speech offences for comments made during the 2017 marriage equality postal vote. And no doubt the queer community is still grappling with the repercussions of putting its rights up for public debate.
In Canada, a video went viral of a man spitting on a rainbow crosswalk, which brought to story of an assault eerily reminiscent of Shepard’s and only two years later into the spotlight (and in the city where I did my PhD only 7 years later, and in places I knew well). And the closing line from Veronica Dymond in the CBC story above sums things up quite well:
Every person in the LGBTQ community has that moment, when they realized they weren’t safe in their communities. So many people have worked hard to make this country a safer place for us, and I’m grateful. But that doesn’t erase the memories, and the struggle is ongoing.
The history of violence against queer folk permeates the culture we share. And that cultural memory can’t be dismissed, or necessarily understood by outsiders.
But cultural memory changes and evolves as those who experienced it become more removed, and those who didn’t try to understand it without having been there. This excellent thread on HIV/AIDS is an example of just that. So is the book How to Survive a Plague.
Now, dear reader, you are no doubt wondering what this has to do with science? Queer folk are less likely to pursue careers in science, and once in science, they don’t always find it to be a welcoming place (though this is getting better!). But many queers in STEM also carry that cultural memory of the constant loss of friends or just simply queer compatriots we never knew, but might have in different circumstances. Or indeed have experienced it directly themselves (if you want to get an idea of the UK situation, check out the BBC Two 2017 documentary “Is It Safe To Be Gay In the UK?“; though not currently available on the BBC site, it might be found elsewhere). And many of us “tone down” our queerness in science and in public for fear of repercussions. Asking ourselves, is it safe, while looking over our shoulder at who else might be around. It’s the little things. Where ideas like queering our science seem revolutionary, iconoclastic, and risqué.
Lately, there’s not been a week go by where I haven’t been contacted by an early-career queer scientist who just wanted to chat with someone who had a set of shared experiences. I sure as heck don’t have all the answers, and I still struggle myself from time to time (to paraphrase a Star Trek episode title, who mentors the mentors?). One shouldn’t be expected separate one’s queerness from one’s science, even when that queerness comes with a legacy of hurt. Science is people, and people include emotion.
This October 12th, which incidentally is also International Coming Out Day, I’ll work to make my science a little bit more queer, I’ll come out (for the 4776th day in a row), and I’ll reflect on both how far we’ve come in the last 20 years, and how far we have yet to go in science and in society.