I was a college freshman the first time I went to a gay club. It was Kurfew, a twink party for the 18+ crowd, which was part of the Tunnel, one of the huge industrial dance parties that are far less common than they were then. To get there you had to take the 1/9 train down to 28th Street and then walk four long blocks west. The streets were poorly lit, and mostly empty at that time of night. It went there on a Saturday night in the dead of a New York winter. When I was one block away from the club, I found myself behind a group of other gay kids. As we were walking, a group of 20-somethings headed to what was presumably the majority, straight part of Tunnel came up and walked alongside of us. One of them said, "Hey, faggot. I'll kick your ass." Nothing more than that happened. They laughed and walked on. It was one of the very few times I was ever physically threatened by someone for being gay. The moment passed quickly. It was over.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, it had been more than that. Let's say, that jerk decided at that moment to target me, to throw me against the wall, perhaps kill me. When the police came, that group of gay kids would tell them what happened, would have told them that the very last word I heard in my short life was faggot.
If that had happened, my name might have become famous nation-wide, the new Matthew Sheppard. I would have been a teenage Columbia kid, with a huge future in front of him, killed because all he wanted to do was go to a gay club and find himself. Everyone in the country would have seen my senior class high school photo next to Peter Jennings. That I had been the president of my archaeology club in high school, the captain of my quiz bowl team, a huge film buff, a weirdo jokester, a person given to highly inappropriate jokes in the worst situations, a kid with severe mood swings, an engaged student in all my seminar classes, an idiot who got into six car accidents when he was in high school, a Jewish kid who refused to attend a single High Holiday service after my bar mitzvah in Israel, a kid who was beginning to roll his eyes at the Israeli nationalist crowd, a kid who spent one summer volunteering at a local shelter during which he spent most of his time chatting with the homeless and not really helping them, another summer as an intern at a tech company, two summers as a volunteer at the National Zoo where he fucked up over and over again, a kid with zero athletic ability who ran everyday to get through his depression, a kid who wondered the campus at 3 o'clock in the morning when he couldn't sleep and who could never make it on time to his 11 am Literature Humanities class where he was one of a brand new professor's three favorites in the room, a kid who couldn't hold more than one drink on any given night, a kid who didn't like drinking at all, a kid who spent 2 hours on a train out to Jamaica to hear Arthur Miller, V.S. Naipaul and William Styron speak, a kid who spent another two hours on the ferry and train with his brother to see a movie at a mall in Staten Island just because, a kid who could scream with infinite rage at his family but who never did anything of the sort to his friends, a kid who once turned in forty dollars he found on the floor of a middle school and who later pocketed 100 dollars he found lying in the middle of the street, a kid who could take on the most insane and most contradictory political positions at the drop of the hat, a kid who walked out of an anti-death penalty demonstration during his first week of school because he couldn't stand the socialist rantings, a kid who wrote one of his first major college papers on the Incredible Hulk in the nuclear age, a kid whose best friends in high school were casual homophobes would not have existed. That kid would have been nothing more than a symbol of an ideology, a belief system that stated that to be gay in America was to be a life less valued than others. One or two of the details of my life would have made it into the obituaries, and I guarantee that one of them would have been about my past as a captain of my high school quiz bowl team, a status that I wasn't actually that proud of. My less likable traits would have been ignored. I would have become a martyr, and martyrs can't have faults. I would have ceased to be human.
I would not have been around to say whether or not I would want such a status. I would not have been around to say that I questioned the very notion of a hate crime, or that I thought that such a designation in our legal system amounted to punishing thought crime. I would not have been around to say that my killer may be a more complicated person than a simple-minded bigot, and that although he deserved life in prison, he may also have deserved a better-researched biography on the part of journalists. The GLAAD folks would have reduced my name to an incantation in a religion I didn't entirely believe in, a name shouted at rallies and whispered thoughtfully in conversations at activist meetings.
Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin were complicated people. All of them were imperfect, and whatever the ambiguities in their individual cases, none of them deserved to die. But please forgive me if I hesitate to turn any of them into symbols. They deserve more than that.