Tuesday, October 16, 2012

“Leave or Die, Fags” Hate Speech, Harsh Truth

Joshua Harrison and Jeremy Jeffers are the Texas couple who made national news after their home was vandalized with a death threat on October 1 (see photo). I had a chance to speak with Josh and Jeremy on the phone about their lives in Clarendon, TX before and after the vandalism, the media attention they’ve received, and how the events of recent weeks have only worsened their predicament.

Jeremy and Josh met on the job. Jeremy was working in a restaurant and Josh had stopped in to drop off an application. Jeremy recalls, ”I went digging through those applications to see if I could find him!”

The two worked together for a time, before Josh left that job to go to work for The Cleaning Lady, his aunt’s house-cleaning business. Neither are strangers to small-town life, and both have spent a lot of time in the rural parts of New Mexico and West Texas, but they say their troubles with the townsfolk of Clarendon began in earnest when they started living together as a couple, about 18 months ago.

“We’ve lived just like any other family around here. We get up and go to work and try to make ends meet. We work hard and live paycheck to paycheck just like everybody else, but it’s a problem for people because we’re gay,” Jeremy says.

This sounds familiar. In certain places around this country, even if you’re out, it’s nice to be able to let strangers assume you’re straight. Living in Louisiana, I found that co-habitating as a couple made it tougher to hide in plain sight. In our home life there, renting an apartment, buying insurance, and having a maintenance person over could all be events fraught with stress or even peril. Out in public, we took care not to stand too close or seem to familiar with one another, unless I happened to be spoiling for a fight.

Josh hints at his own difficulty keeping peace with his neighbors, including troubles with local law enforcement. “The police around here don’t care about gay people,” he says. “They act like they’re above the law.”

It was that mistrust of law enforcement that prompted Joshua and Jeremy to alert the media to the vandalism at their house. “The police sent someone out here. They walked around and took our statement, but didn’t treat it like it was serious. They didn’t offer to send a car around or bother to ask any questions around the neighborhood. We went to the media because we knew that if our story got out, then people might be aware of what happened, so maybe would be hesitate on physically attacking us.”

But going to the media has its own consequences. I know; I came out in my small-town college’s campus newspaper as part of a controversy over dormitory visitation rules. Suddenly, I wasn’t merely an adversary, I was a traitor. I had broken a rule I hadn’t known existed: the rule of silence. I had aired dirty laundry, betraying the institution’s issues to a larger world. For me, that perceived betrayal upset the wrong people, and almost ensured that I never got a college degree. After I went to the paper, specific officials on campus—officials charged with my well-being—routinely harassed, surveilled, and punished me for infractions that they regularly ignored from others.

When I tell this story, I’m often met with disbelief. People instinctively trust authorities. There must be another side to it, right? Even now, having lived through such bureaucratic abuses, I have trouble seeing Joshua and Jeremy as mere victims. Surely, their struggles in Clarendon aren’t simply because they’re gay. Something in their attitude must have set people off.

Well, so what? Straight people reserve the right to be contentious or arrogant, to be lippy with the cops or imperious with Customer Service, to only loosely follow silly regulations, or to generally play poorly with others because they expect, at worst, a few eye-rolls and maybe some back talk, not arrests or death threats. If I’d had the skill or temperament to go along and get along, things might have been easier. My tendency, back then, was to respond to any slight, real or imagined, with anger driven by hurt and pride. I suspect that this is a trait I share with Josh.

The specifics of my story are mine, and Joshua and Jeremy have their own specifics, but we’re only a few among many. My story, their story, is the story of millions of LGBT people who live in places where high school never ended; where bullying has seeped into the cultural water table; where the “good ol’ boy” network is still extant at every level, and access to decent jobs, to justice, to basic services still depends the approval of feckless gatekeepers; where bias is institutionalized in the Sheriff’s office, the employment office, the County Clerk, the church, everywhere.

Joshua and Jeremy aren’t like the gay couples you see on Modern Family or The New Normal, the well-employed, well-established, well-educated “guppies” (gay yuppies) or “DINKs” (Dual Income, No Kids) securely tucked away in a relatively progressive suburb, or safe among the numbers who find homes in a cosmopolitan city. The closest thing TV gives us to Joshua and Jeremy is Kurt from Glee, who has working-class roots but left home as soon as he could, realizing there was simply no place for him in small-town Lima, OH. In the show, his move to New York was celebrated as a courageous step into a larger world, but it could as easily have been mourned as a sad realization of the truth that many small towns, by the actions or the silence of their citizens, say to their LGBT sons and daughters every day, in ways big and small, subtle and plain: “Leave or die, faggot.”

Leave or die. Die a quick death like Matthew Shepherd, or die a slow death through economic hardship, lack of opportunity, internalized homophobia, shoddy healthcare, uncaring law enforcement, the unreliability or even active disdain of the basic institutions that most people take for granted.

As much as we hate to admit it, those hateful vandals were right. That’s the dirty underbelly of the “It Gets Better” project. Take a stroll through the videos and you’ll find that, more often than not, it only gets better if you pack your bags and get out of town.

Leave or die. But not everyone can leave, and not everyone wants to. Family obligations, financial burdens, and simple fear of losing community and home often to keep people in place; some people simply aren’t suited to urban life; and some simply refuse to leave on principle, preferring to stand their ground. For Jeremy and Joshua, the time has come to leave, if they can afford it.

“We can’t afford to get far, but maybe we can get to Amarillo. We’ve got to get out of here,” Jeremy explains.

Only dumb luck ever got my partner and me out of Louisiana. I’d made a contact through work with a woman in Columbus, OH, and I begged her to help me get a job there. She came through, and will perhaps never know what she did for Cody and me.

Now, years later, I write these words from a wealthy suburb in California. Life is pretty easy: I write my plays, do a little activist work, and give money to LGBT causes when I can.

But how can I help people like Joshua and Jeremy?

When the news of the death threat broke nationally, Joshua’s aunt began losing clients at her cleaning service, so Joshua has lost his work. Since their media moment, Jeremy and Joshua have been refused service at some local establishments, and have been given the run-around at others. They’ve now been threatened physically and economically, and can barely get by, much less scrape together the money for a U-Haul, gas, and an apartment deposit in Amarillo.

If anything, media exposure has only added to the urgency that Joshua and Jeremy find someplace safe, and what have they gained for their troubles? The Amarillo media isn’t going to send a patrol by their house. Huffington Post isn’t going to get them a job. Journalists are trained not to get involved.

We as a community today are simply not directing the great and growing force of our financial, creative, and political resources toward countering this kind of institutionalized bullying that takes place all across America. Lady Gaga isn’t going to Clarendon, TX to give a benefit. No feel-good initiative is going to come to the area to tell Joshua and Jeremy that they’re going to be okay. We’re wearing purple for teens on Friday, not for adults.

Indeed, our blue-state drive toward marriage equality, important and essential as it is, has prompted reactionary backlash in many red states, resulting in a slew of initiatives and constitutional amendments designed to “protect marriage” and keep tolerance programs out of schools, not to mention the very personal, everyday backlash that doesn’t make the news. While we’d be foolish to stop our work, it’s also foolish not to recognize and respond to the needs of our LGBT brothers and sisters who are geographically and economically unable to directly or immediately benefit from our great march toward equality.

Joshua and Jeremy say that, so far, their recent trials have only brought them together as a couple. “Sometimes the stress gets to us, but we’ve bonded together in so many ways because of this.” They express gratitude for the many statements of support and encouragement they’ve received:

The support of the gay community has been amazing. For awhile I was wondering if we were really a community or a family anymore. And the gay community reaching out and offering those words of encouragement. We were so scared. It’s nice to know that we’re not alone.

But can we offer more than words? It’s true that journalists aren’t supposed to get involved, but I’m no journalist. Owldolatrous Press has set up a fund for Joshua and Jeremy. Every bit helps, and 100% of the donations will go to them, to help them with the expense of moving to Amarillo, where they might find peace and community. We’re starting things off with a $50 donation of our own. Please give what you can.

UPDATE: thanks to the generosity of hundreds of people and some extra publicity from Towleroad, together we raised a final total of $2690! Jeremy and Joshua are moved beyond words by the generosity and encouragement you have shown. We’ll provide an update on their changing situation very soon.

For anyone else struggling in a rural or less progressive area, or wishing to help LGBT people in those areas, here are a few resources.
  • Victory Fund is a PAC that helps fund gay-rights initiatives in all the states.
  • Equality Texas has taken interest in the case of Joshua and Jeremy and they take donations, though nothing is currently earmarked for Joshua and Jeremy.
  • Southern Poverty Law Center has been working on equality in the Southern states for years.
  • Of course, no matter where you live, it’s always a good idea to know who your congressional representatives are, at the national and local level, and how to contact them. This resource helps with that.
If you know of other resources, please list them in the comments section.

 

 

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