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Intolerance creates climate of violence


People across the nation expressed anguish and sympathy when they heard the news of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay college student who was beaten, lashed to a fencepost and left for dead in Laramie, Wyo.

The outpouring of emotion was not solely because of the grisly details of the crime, but also because Matthew Shepard was a young man with whom many could identify. He was the gay son or gay brother or gay friend that many people have come to know as more gay and lesbian people make themselves visible in our church and society.

Increasingly, people are coming to realize that hate-motivated attacks against gay and lesbian people are not about some unknown “other,” but against people they care for and love.

It is also important to understand, on the other hand, that Matthew’s attackers are not monsters, as some commentators have tried to portray them. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are probably more like the boys next door than we care to admit. To portray them as monsters keeps us safe from the vicious hatred they exhibited. It allows us to deny that the kind of hatred that led to the Wyoming attack exists in our own backyards.

Unfortunately, it does.

This past summer, New Ways Ministry, a national Catholic ministry group of justice and reconciliation for gay and lesbian Catholics and the wider church community, distributed a survey to Catholic colleges and universities across the nation.

We tried to identify attitudes, policies, activities and programs regarding gay and lesbian students and issues.

The survey and its analysis are not yet complete, but one preliminary statistic gives us pause as we continue to ponder the violent actions of the two young men in Wyoming.

Close to 60 percent of the colleges that responded to the survey answered yes to the question, “In the past three years, has there been any instance of harassment or violence against an individual believed to be lesbian or gay?”

That means that a gay or lesbian student, faculty member or staff person would be subject to some form of harassment or abuse on three-fifths of Catholic college campuses. Because only one of the incidents reported in the survey involved physical attack, it may seem that the level of violence is not very significant. However, verbal attacks, vandalism and the promotion of anti-gay messages in writing were reported as frequent occurrences.

Violence, as the U.S. bishops pointed out in their 1994 pastoral statement, “Confronting a Culture of Violence,” can exist on many levels, not just the graphic and bloody. They describe a “slow-motion violence of discrimination,” which, the bishops say, can be just as harmful: “Not all violence is deadly. It begins with anger, intolerance, impatience, unfair judgments and aggression. It is often reflected in our language, our entertainment, our driving, our competitive behavior and the way we treat our environment. These acts and attitudes are not the same as abusive behavior or physical attacks, but they create a climate where violence prospers and peace suffers.”

That climate of violence toward gay and lesbian people is alive on a large number of Catholic campuses. What a tragedy it would be if students wearing jackets and sweatshirts bearing Catholic school names come to symbolize the violent actions in Wyoming. Left unchecked, the violence simmering below the surface in attitudes could easily explode given an unfortunate mix of circumstances.

The good news is that some of the campuses have begun outreach and support programs for gay/lesbian students. These programs offer hope that attitudes of violence will not overrun our campuses. Many include educational components to teach the entire campus community about gay and lesbian reality, helping to dispel myths, stereotypes, and, most important, fear.

Perhaps the most violent myth being propounded today is that gay and lesbian people do not exist. Recent advertisements in national newspapers offering so-called “reorientation therapy” base their claims on the notion that everyone is heterosexually oriented, a claim roundly rejected by science and religion.

These ads, which will soon be aired in video form on local stations around the country, have the same outcome as a hate crime: They aim at denying the existence of a group of people. Though they are compassionate in tone, they are violent in their aims.

The U.S. bishops will be meeting in Washington Nov. 15-19. They can begin to implement their teaching on “slow-motion” violence by denouncing soundly the messages of these advertisements. In the 1997 pastoral statement “Always Our Children,” they have already pointed out that reparative therapy is to be evaluated with great caution.

The message of these advertisements holds potential for such great harm that the bishops should speak forcefully to expose the lies inherent in them, lies that will lead to further violence. While the public interest is high, the bishops have a window of opportunity to build on their 1994 statement on violence and their previous condemnations of prejudice against gay and lesbian people. They can make a credible and powerful contribution to this important national discussion on combating hate crimes.

The future Matthew Shepards, Aaron McKinneys and Russell Hendersons who now walk on Catholic campuses need the bishops’ voice.

Francis DeBernardo is executive director of New Ways Ministry.

National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998