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Knowing the Body
2004 Second Web Report
On Serendip

AN ANALYSIS OF GAY BASHING THROUGH EXPLORATION OF THE MATTHEW SHEPARD EVENT

Rebecca Mao

The human body is an object in which one lives and the medium through which one experiences oneself and the world. Claims on ideology and space are ultimately vested in the human body, and thus conflicts about belief systems and territory are often contested violently on physical bodies. Gay bodies become entangled in violence when they enter into arenas that combat certain ideas. Gay bashing illustrates incidences all in which bodies experience physical injury. In modern U.S. communities various militant conservatives target homosexuals in "gay bashing." Mathew Shepard's brutal murder in 1998 illustrates a relatively recent incident in which the human body becomes politicized. What is the process by which the pain and death of Shepard's body transform the personal to the political? What does "gay bashing" mean to attackers, victims and their communities?

If gay bashing is about violence and being gay is at least partially about sex, then what is the relationship between them? What framework attends to both the sexual and nonsexual activities among contemporary American males? In Between Men, Eve Sedgwick sleds light on the boundaries separating sexual and nonsexual male relationships. According to the author, homosocial and homosexual do not necessarily have to occupy two different, non-overlapping spheres. " 'Homosocial desire', to begin with, is a kind of oxymoron. "Homosocial" is a word . . . [that] describes social bonds between persons of the same sex; it is a neologism, obviously formed with analogy with "homosexual," and just as obviously meant to distinguish from 'homosexual'" (Sedgwick 1985:1). Sedgwick contends that it would be more useful to view homosocial and homosexual not as distinct categories but as a continuum. Applying this concept to gay bashing means entertaining the idea that homosociality that often includes homophobia is not intrinsically dichotomized against homosexuality (Sedgwick 1985).

The homophobia that exists within societies in general is not required in order to perpetuate the established patriarchy. For the purpose of remaining at the top of the gender hierarchy, men need not prove to themselves and to other men that they're homophobic. ". . . it has yet to be demonstrated that, because most patriarchies structurally include homophobia, therefore patriarchy structurally requires homophobia . . . while heterosexuality is necessary for the maintenance of any patriarchy, homophobia, against males at any rate, is not" (Sedgwick 1985:4). Sedgwick illustrates that patriarchy's perpetuation does not need the promotion of heterosexism through expressing homophobia during homosocial bonding. The relationship between patriarchy and homophobia exists within contextual fabrics unique to each society. Within context homophobia could be used either as an agonist or an enhancer of patriarchy. To narrow the scope of analysis, I argue that in many conservative US communities obligatory apparent heterosexuality enhances patriarchy (Sedgwick 1985).

On October 6, 1998 Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson cross paths in life with Mathew Shepard. McKinney and Henderson come from poor rural backgrounds, earn criminal records, live in trailer parks and fix roofs for a living. Shepard come from a more privileged family background and study as a student at the University of Wyoming. Shepard frequents Fireside, a college bar where McKinney and Henderson also happen to drink that particular night. In a casual chat, Shepard tells McKinney and Henderson that he is gay. The three leave the bar together because Shepard believes that McKinney and Henderson are driving him home (Kaufman 2001).

In the truck McKinney begins hitting Shepard, approximately three times with his fist and six times with his pistol. Later in court, McKinney will testify that he assaults Shepard who according to him, places his hand on his leg, seems to be reaching for his balls, and thus triggers his "Gay Panic Defense" which the law stipulates as a mechanism in response to the sexual advancement made by gays. This statue reveals homophobia's lawful place in institutionalized patriarchy. After severely beating Shepard in the moving truck Henderson tie him onto a fence on the lonely mountains of Laramie. McKinney pistol whips Shepard several more times in an attempt to later prevent police involvement when Shepard manages to read the truck's license plate at McKinney's orders. McKinney and Henderson leave Shepard to die midair in the freezing night of the wilderness (Kaufman 2001).

Eighteen hours later a biker discovers a deathly Shepard after having initially mistaken his five foot one inch, seriously injured body for a scarecrow. The biker reports the crime to police and the first officer who arrives at the scene later describes Shepard's face completely covered in dried blood except for the bloodless streaks where his flowing tears ran. EMT rushes a barely breathing Shepard to the Ivinson Hospital emergency room where doctors decide that the patient needs to be transferred to Poudre Valley Hospital for neurosurgery. Ironically Dr. Cantway, the physician who treats Shepard also treats McKinney twenty minutes prior to Shepard's arrival two rooms down the hall (Kaufman 2001).

In an interview for The Laramie Project, McKinney's girlfriend Kristin Price tells writers that the two men went to the bathroom where they plan to put on a gay pretense in order to lead Shepard into the truck and rob him as punishment for "coming on to straight people." Price describes the punishment as a lesson that the two men intend to teach Shepard. Yet is the audience to the violence limited to the body on which it takes place, in this case Shepard's? (Kaufman 2001)

What is created when the body of a gay man becomes damaged through intentional violence? In addition, what does it mean when the gay man's injured body rests in a lofted position for spectacle? Unlike secrete murderers, Shepard's attackers choose not to hide the dying body after inflicting violence. McKinney and Henderson do not burry Shepard in a makeshift grave, a body of water or an abandoned building. They do not cut up, incinerate, trash or induce the disappearance of Shepard's injured body. Instead, McKinney and Henderson tie Sheperd's injured body onto a pole where it remains lofted for public display. Although hurriedly hiding the body of a murder victim could be at times be understood as the attacker's instantaneous reaction upon realizing the seriousness of his crime, lofting a body is certainly not understood as such. McKinney and Henderson are acutely aware that someone will eventually discover Shepard's body lofted midair.

The attackers' conscious decision to hold up Shepard's body stems from their intensions to make public what is private. I argue that Shepard's attacker metaphorically lynch him. In this case, the act of injuring a gay body is private whereas the subsequent exhibition of that injured body is public. Gay bashing entails not only the damage or destruction of homosexual bodies but more importantly the injury's public display. The "lesson" that McKinney's girlfriend describe is taught not only to Shepard but to the public, including the body's discoverer, transporter, caretaker, Laramie residents and readers about the crime. Knowledge of the violence done to a gay man's body resonates outwards from its site of occurrence as learners mushroom in number. Using Shepard's body to demonstrate to its mind that certain heterosexuals do not welcome a homosexual's sexual advances is the private act of punishing one individual. Using Shepard's body to demonstrate to the minds of local and distant communities that certain heterosexuals do not welcome a homosexual's sexual advances is the public act of intimidating gays and people who care about them in general.

McKinney and Henderson utilize one body's injury in order to teach entire bodies of people to conform to heterosexism. Through injuring a gay man's body and exhibiting that injury, McKinney and Henderson struggle to maintain the heterosexual privilege of communicating sexual advances with only other heterosexuals and not homosexuals. I contend that although this umbrella statement may be true in some larger context, it does not encompass many other instances. For example, it does not accurately describe the kind of heterosexual privilege in this particular community. I suspect that in conservative spaces sexual initiation remains men's preoccupations. Since in many conservative communities contemporary American men initiated sexual interest to women, the turf that McKinney and Henderson are defending is the territory reserved for heterosexual men to "hit on" women of interest.

Hitting on a woman does not necessarily equal to expressing sexual interest for further sexual contact. Rather than being a means to an end, that of showing sexual interest for the purpose of obtaining more sexual activity, "hitting on" could be an end in and of itself. "Hitting on" a woman could simply entail visually enjoying her body. To "hit on" a woman means to visually penetrate her, "checking her out" in a way that serves the observer's interests above all else. The right to look is a pleasure reserved for men. The collective right to look makes the male gaze powerful and socially intimidating, without a comparable female gaze that could match in degree. There is no female equivalent of the male gaze. The right to look translates to the ability to objectify human bodies that are female. The male gaze successfully intimidates because it carries the ability to make object what was subject, with respect to the human body. Shepard's attackers see or believe they see that they are being hit on as if they were women. Thus the turf that McKinney and Henderson want to protect is heterosexual as well as masculine. To Shepard's attackers, patriarchy is the right of men to "hit on" women while remaining safe from not being "hit on" by anyone else, especially another man.

Patriarchy, imbued with hierarchical meanings, gives heterosexual men something to loose. As practiced in contemporary America, patriarchy uses homophobia as structural support. Gay bashing exemplifies homosocial behavior's contribution to US patriarchy. The human body is both an object in which one lives and a site of political articulation. The struggles within many societies begin and end within the terrain of the human body, which though has no referential meaning becomes embodied by meaning within context that ultimately has a stake in the body. .

1. Kaufman, Moises. 2001. The Laramie Project. New York: First Vintage Books.

2. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1985. Between Men. New York: Columbia University Press.


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