Coming out for justice

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day, an annual event when thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and allies hold workshops, speak-outs, rallies and other kinds of events all aimed at showing the public that LGBT people are everywhere. Each year on October 11, everyone is encouraged to come out as an active voice for LGBT equality that will result in real political and social change.

And as a recent string of tragic and increasingly horrific events has made disturbingly clear, our society desperately needs to change.

Raging bullies
In less than a month, five incidents of teen youth suicide have made national headlines. Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown and Raymond Chase all decided that killing themselves was a preferable alternative to enduring the bullying of classmates who find homosexuality a source of disgust, contempt, or amusement. Each of these victims was singled out because others disapproved of the most personal, intimate parts of their being. In other words, for things that were none of their tormentors’ business.

Models Inc #1

Models Inc #1. Cover art by Phil Jimenez. Copyright Marvel Comics.

In response to this epidemic of homophobic harassment and the needless deaths it’s causing, a number of celebrities have produced video messages of hope for the Trevor Project’s “It Gets Better” campaign. The Trevor Project is the leading  national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts  among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Among the “It Gets Better” contributors is Project Runway mentor and dapper gentleman Tim Gunn, who is not only a long-time comic book fan, but was once portrayed in a Marvel comic book where he got to don Iron Man’s cybernetic suit of armor. Proving himself a real-life hero, Gunn shares his personal story of teen despair to help convince LGBTQ youth that mustering the courage to reach out for help and overcome what now seem like hopeless situations will be rewarded by future lives of happiness, acceptance, and success.

Bullying is one of the basest forms of injustice. The belief that might makes right is one of the things modern civilization was created to challenge. The reason bullying has continued to thrive over millennia of human existence is because its perpetrators victimize the weakest members of society. Childhood bullies target peers who aren’t physically strong enough to defend themselves–any potential victim who presents even the possibility of a fair fight is ignored in favor of easier prey. But even more appealing to a bully on the prowl than a victim without physical strength is one who lacks political power, someone who has been disenfranchised from mainstream society. In fact, this emboldens bullies who see ample evidence from friends, family, teachers and the media that these outsiders are less worthy than others. From the evidence all around them, bullies have every reason to believe that not only will no one stand up to defend these outcasts, but that their abuse will actually be condoned–or even praised.

And the more support bullies feel from those around them, the more brutal they are likely to become.

The ugly face of intolerance
Yesterday was a day to celebrate LGBTQ members of society, but today is a much darker anniversary. October 12, 1998 was the day 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard finally succumbed to the fatal injuries inflicted on him six days earlier by two homophobes in a field near Ft. Laramie. The trial of Shepard’s murderers brought national and international attention to the issue of hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels. It also inspired Judd Winnick, a writer for DC Comics, to address the issue of gay bashing in Green Lantern.

Green Lantern #154

Green Lantern #154. Cover art by Jim Lee. Copyright DC Comics.

Winnick was the creator of the graphic novel, Pedro and Me, about his friendship with gay AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, who he met on MTV’s Real World in San Francisco. Pedro and Me won a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Award, among many other honors. Winnick was moved by the deaths of Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena (portrayed by Hilary Swank in the film Boys Don’t Cry) to write the 2002 two-part story “Hate Crimes”, drawn by Dale Eaglesham, in issues #154-55 of Green Lantern. In the story, Terry Berg, Green Lantern’s friend and assistant (in the superhero’s day job as a commercial artist), is savagely beaten into a coma by two homophobic thugs after they see Terry kiss his boyfriend in public. When one of the attackers is arrested, Green Lantern visits him in jail and uses his considerable super powers to torture the location of Terry’s other assailant out of him. The Green Lantern story also won a GLAAD Media Award for shining a spotlight on the ugly reality of homophobia.

As much as public attitudes toward homosexuality have advanced during the eight years since “Hate Crimes” was published, recent events in New York tragically prove that there are still those among us who believe it’s open season on anyone whose sexuality doesn’t match their own hyper-macho extremes.

Last week nine New York City gang members abducted, beat and tortured two 17-year old boys and a 30-year old man for being gay. The brutal, sadistic acts committed against the victims were as horrific as something from the latest Saw film. NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said “These suspects employed terrible, wolfpack odds of nine against one, odds which revealed them as predators whose crimes were as cowardly as they were despicable.” Putting aside the commissioner’s presumably unintentional slander against wolves and other true predators, his statement is further evidence that bullies are most dangerous when they travel in mobs. The combined roar of their intolerance, ignorance and hate drowns out whatever muffled part of each individual’s conscience might still be crying quietly to be heard.

And when communities and governments fall equally silent, or even imply, however vaguely, that people who fall (or have been pushed) outside the boundaries of mainstream society are somehow less deserving of its compassion and protection, they set the stage for the next teen suicide or savage attack.

In this case, the head cheerleader for this particular team of nine thugs is New York gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino.

Teaching hate
Over the weekend, even as the investigation into this brutal hate crime continued (fortunately, all nine suspects have been arrested), Paladino made a campaign speech to a group of potential voters in which he said, “I don’t want [my children] brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option — it isn’t.”

Other comments in his prepared written remarks, but not said by Paladino in his speech, include, “There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual,” and “That’s not how God created us.”

To clarify his position, he told reporters at the gathering, “Don’t misquote me as wanting to hurt homosexual people in any way. That would be a dastardly lie.”

Or at least a half-lie.

On The Today Show yesterday he told Matt Lauer he is not anti-gay and considers discrimination against gays to be “horrible … terrible.” Yet he has also repeatedly pledged that as governor he would veto any same-sex marriage bill that came across his desk. How is that not discrimination? And how does that not hurt gays?

You can not identify one group of people as being less “valid” than another and expect them to be treated with an equal amount of respect. Every time a politician, or religious leader, or entertainer, or athlete portrays bigotry as fair, or moral, or funny, or cool they make discrimination acceptable. And that makes bullying inevitable.

The Amazing Spider-Man on Bullying Prevention

The Amazing Spider-Man on Bullying Prevention. Copyright Marvel Comics.

Teaching justice
My personal contributions to the battle against bullying were made as Director of the Doris Day Animal Foundation’s Comics for Compassion program from 1999-2006. During that time I worked with DC and Marvel Comics to produce comic books that promoted the humane treatment of animals to young readers. While advising Marvel Comics on the anti-animal cruelty story in X-Men Unlimited #44, I was put in touch with the organization Prevent Child Abuse America, which was working with Marvel on a public service comic book, The Amazing Spider-Man on Bullying Prevention. I wrote an article for DDAF’s member magazine comparing our comic book with PCAA’s to demonstrate the importance of teaching children that might doesn’t make right, and that bullying is always wrong, regardless of who the victim is.

That’s why justice is blind. The identity of neither perpetrator nor victim is relevant to the determination of who should pay for a crime, and how much.

But the crime itself always matters. There are crimes of passion and premeditation, of self defense and of cruelty, or necessity and greed. Then there are hate crimes that demean us all by appealing to the most primitive aspects of our shared humanity. They begin with words spoken out of fear, or ignorance, or intolerance. And when those words go unchallenged, they end in gay bashings, lynchings, rapes, religious terrorism and genocide.

That’s why it’s up to each of us to challenge hate speech and bullying whenever we encounter them. We have to let the victims know that they do not deserve this treatment and let their tormentors know that we do not respect or admire their actions. We have to take every opportunity to show the potential predators out there that there are no outcasts among us for them to prey on, that an attack against one is an attack against all. If we want justice for ourselves we have to ensure that there is justice for everyone.

Because things do get better, but they don’t get there by themselves.

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4 Responses to Coming out for justice

  1. Jennifer Boyer says:

    Great job, Richard! I am going to share this with my gay comic book-loving friends David and Mark!

  2. Julie Falconer says:

    Your strong sense of justice and compassion for all beings shines through as usual, Richard. Thanks for writing another timely and moving piece.

  3. jeff subhumyn says:

    i just recently became a fan of the Green Lantern, after nearly a decade of being a hardcore DC fan. i think it was DCU animated movie Green Lantern: First Flight that finally pushed me over the edge. so i’m going to have to keep my eye out for issue #154.

    thanks for writing about the recent wave of LGBT/Q youth suicides and the culture of bullying and hatred that is without a doubt the root cause. i would call it an “epidemic” but that would imply that this is a new phenomenon, but unfortunately the only thing that is different is that people are now paying attention. so thanks again for lending your voice an declaring that LGBT/Q lives do matter.

  4. Thanks, Jen, Julie and Jeff.

    Jeff, Green Lantern was one of my three favorite superheroes during my earliest comic book reading days (the other two being the Flash and Captain America). This was when his adventures were being chronicled by the legendary writer/artist team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, who gained national attention injecting social relevancy into their stories. They dealt with issues of racism, sexism, environmentalism, and human overpopulation, among others. I give a couple examples of their Green Lantern work on the My Golden Age page of My 40 years in comics in the About section of this site.

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