Jesus commands us to love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. All three loves are deeply connected. Which one is the biggest challenge for you?
Last fall a former student of mine got assaulted on Augsburg’s campus in Minneapolis, MN for being gay. As high schoolers preform the Matthew Shepard story to address hate crimes, Justin similarly begged me to tell everyone his story. So here it is.
Justin was hanging out on campus with his friend Sam, who is also gay. Both men enjoy playing with and smudging gender lines. Four men approached them, one more aggressive than the others, taunting them and calling them faggots. Justin simply asked, “Do you know what faggot means?”
Definition: a bundle of sticks, twigs, or branches bound together and used as fuel, a fascine, a torch, etc. 1910–15, Americanism ; cf. faggot a contemptuous term for a woman (from ca. 1590), perh. the same word as fagot -Dictionary.com
After some verbal sparring, the men left, only to come back in what seemed a very planned physical assault, which left both gay men on the ground while the four attackers fled. Justin said that the next day was the first day he felt unsafe walking around his campus. Totally courageous, he called me and asked me to tell all my students his story. We had been reading The Laramie Project, the play about the crucifixion of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming. I keep waiting for that 1998 story to be outdated and irrelevant, but we are so far away from even the tolerance of live and let live.
I could teach The Laramie Project and tell Justin’s story at my Catholic high school because in Church teaching, it is absolutely not ok for someone to be the victim of unjust discrimination because of her or his sexuality. The Catechism states that people who are homosexual “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” (2358). Justin was not doing anything wrong by standing on his campus. He did not deserve to be assaulted, and Catholics can agree that we need to work to ensure all people’s dignity and safety.
What happened to Justin just astounds me. What is it about Justin existing that attacks his executioner so much that the attacker needs to act out in violence to re-establish his masculinity and heterosexuality? What is the deep connection between gender and sexuality? Why do we categorize so intensely that human beings who choose to express gender more complexly need to be beaten back into the rigid norm?
Go back to the origin of the word that was used to insult Justin. Why is the biggest insult to call Justin a woman? How is beating him physically going to make things more clear? It seems to me we have work to do on educating about both gender and sexuality so that all human beings can self- express without having to worry about their physical safety. Justin wants his assailant to know that punching him will not force him back in the closet. Justin is a gay man who does not feel fully alive when living by the acceptable gender rules society has laid out for him. He exists. And if that makes people uncomfortable, it is their work to be done. And it is my job as a heterosexual who loves Justin for who he is to tirelessly work to make the world a place where he is not only tolerated, but celebrated.
We do need to keep telling the story of people like Justin and Matthew Shepard so that all of God’s people can feel safe and loved.