Last week a former student of mine got assaulted on Augsburg’s campus in Minneapolis, MN for being gay. He asked me to tell everyone his story, so here it is. I met Justin in the classroom first. He did not thrive in a desk, but he is brilliant, and I could tell right away. He is an amazing actor and play write. I really got to know him in El Salvador when we spent ten days studying war and poverty there. He has a capacity and desire to be a change agent in the world that is second to none. He came out to me the fall of his senior year. And Justin hit the ground running in college, thriving at Augsburg as he found a community who created room for him to be himself. Justin is creative, kind and sassy. I think of him as having an amazing combination of potential and kinetic energy bubbling around. He is gentle, yet not to be underestimated.
Last week, 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 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 I keep waiting for that 1998 story to be outdated and irrelevant, but we are so far away from even the tolerance of live and let live. Justin wanted my students, who still think of him fondly, to have a face to this issue. Shepard, the Rutgers student, and now one of our own. In a way that felt eerie and prophetic, Justin offered, “It is going to be a big year for LGBTQ human rights. I can feel it. There is tension, and there is going to be friction, conflict and growth this year. It is in the air.” I agree. It feels urgent.
I could teach Laramie and tell Justin’s story at my Catholic high school because even in the most conservative Church teaching, it is absolutely not ok for someone to be the victim of unjust discrimination because of her or his sexuality. Justin was not doing anything wrong by standing on his campus. He did not deserve to be assaulted, and even conservative Catholics can agree 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’s masculinity and sexuality so much that the attacker needs to act out in violence to re-establish his masculinity and heterosexuality? Why do gay men get assaulted so much more often than lesbian women? What is the deep connection between gender and sexuality? Why do we categorize so avidly in a binary system that any human being who chooses to express gender more complexly needs 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.