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Let’s not worship our queer teen martyrs

[Glen Retief teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.  His memoir, The Jack Bank, appears in April from St. Martin's Press.]

We teach our children: speak no ill of the dead.  At a funeral, say nice things about the corpse in the coffin.  She can’t answer accusations anymore.

If this is true of dead people in general, even more so when the dead person in question is a mere kid, a “laaitie” as we say in my native South Africa. (I immigrated to the United States about sixteen years ago—more about that in a minute).  When that child has been bullied and brutalized, we’re tempted to raise them to sainthood.  So St. Sebastian, with arrows sticking out of his body, looking to heaven in wounded ecstasy.  Also, college boy Tyler Clementi, who got taped making out with a man in his Rutgers dorm room, and then jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Or, closer to my central Pennsylvania home, Brandon Bitner, who got fed up with being gay-bashed at Middleburg High School, and stepped in front of a speeding truck.

As Zack Ford said in this blog three months ago: “We owe [Brandon] that love now, more than ever.”  In my home town, people compete for stories of how they are connected to him. My cousin’s husband was the driver of the truck—those kinds of tales.  Brandon’s memorial page is understandably full of longing and regret.  An acrostic poem states: “An angel you are to us now.”

I don’t mean to spoil the party, but I just can’t do go along with all this anymore.  I’ve had enough.  It’s certainly not that I hate Brandon, Tyler, Justin Aeburg, Asher Brown, and all of the other depressed queer teenagers who’ve taken their lives over the past year or so.  A gay man myself, I value their difference.  Is it even necessary to say I strongly condemn their harassment and abuse?

Nor am I blaming these kids for their own deaths in that sadistic US marine sergeant kind of way: “Friggin’ sissy!  Toughen up!”  They had enough of that crap while alive.

What I am tired of is feeling I’m supposed to fetishize these boys’ victimhood, kiss their broken bones like George of Diocletian’s, adore them ten times the more now they are dead than I would have done if they’d carried on to live happy, fulfilled, grown-up gay lives.  More than if they’d survived.

I experienced my own homophobic hell growing up white and gay in apartheid South Africa, an experience I describe in my forthcoming memoir, The Jack Bank.  I spent my early years in the Kruger National Park, where a lioness charged my mother and a buffalo killed a housekeeper who crossed a dry river bed in the wrong spot.  But what I experienced at age 12, when I was sent away to a whites-only, government boarding school, made these early brushes with danger seem simple.

A seventeen-year-old prefect figured out I was gay when he caught me “looking at him funny” in the shower room.  He beat me, sometimes several times a week, on my buttocks with a cricket bat.  We called them “jacks,” in South Africa—thrashings—and senior boys were unofficially allowed to administer them to juniors.

He built an electric shock machine with a hand telephone crank and shocked boys’ genitalia.  When he suspected another kid of informing on him to his parents, he staged a mock nude hanging in the senior boys’ bathroom.  All the time he told us—me in particular—he wanted to beat the “queer” and “sissy” out of us.  He said we needed to fight a race war, and this meant we should get some backbone.

One night, just before he got transferred out of the junior dormitory for being too brutal even for apartheid norms, he invented something called the “jack bank,” where we could deposit beatings and they could earn interest.  We volunteered for these beatings.  We begged him, “Please, sir!  More!”  When he got transferred out of our passage, the thing that most infuriated us was that we lost our deposits.

We sweltered, for years, in fear and dehumanization, a program designed specifically to prepare us for the role of racist oppressors.  At times I felt like Brandon—suicidal.  At other times we took out our hurt and anger by beating those younger than us.  Some of my most nauseating memories of high school are of pushing younger boys’ heads in a wooden mailbox, beating them as hard as I could with a cricket bat, and then feeling a great deal of power and self-satisfaction when I got them to fear and obey me.  Until the self-disgust later drove me to vomit over the toilet.

But I got through these trials, as did hundreds of thousands of other gay white boys under apartheid, not to mention the millions of young black South Africans whose suffering greatly exceeded ours.

The world knows the end of this story.  Nelson Mandela, walking free in front of the television cameras.  Corporal punishment being banned in South African schools.  The adoption of one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, which also bans discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation—a clause I helped lobby for, and celebrated ecstatically when it was passed into law.

I’m trying not to be self-righteous here.  Lord knows (metaphorically speaking, on this atheist blog!), I have no reason to be.  See a couple of paragraphs above.

But still, part of me is angry at Brandon, Tyler and co. for caving in.  For giving the haters what they wanted—a few less gay people in the people.  For not keeping going long enough to show the world they could leave adolescence behind and be peaceful and happy queers.

Any depressed gay teenager out there today could look at the reaction to these kids’ deaths and think, “If I want everyone to love me, I should just kill myself!”

But this is wrong.  We can survive, hard as it is.  We can find joy and peace; can learn to be kind to each other.  We can mourn people like Brandon and Tyler, without romanticizing their martyrdom.  We can protest bullying.  And that way we can, at least at moments, be real angels for our fellow human beings, as opposed to vanished saints.

THAT’s love worth giving, day after day, for as long as it’s needed.

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