My heterosexual dilemma

Can someone please explain how flirting can lead to murder?

Published October 19, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Call it my heterosexual dilemma. Gay, queer, a fag -- call me what you will. All my life I have been trying to figure you out, to make sense of you -- the heterosexuals in my life -- how you think, what you feel.

A young man, Matthew Shepard, is pistol-whipped, tied to a fence and left to die in the Wyoming night. The girlfriend of one of the two men accused of the crime explains to a reporter that Shepard had embarrassed her boyfriend by flirting with him at a bar.

Let's assume that the flirtation actually happened. It's not, in any case, a new defense. It isn't the first time vacant-eyed youths have been excused of murder by juries by claiming an unwanted homosexual advance. The question left begging is this: What does it tell us about heterosexual insecurity that a gay wink in a bar would unleash such murderous rage?

For all our talk about sex, despite Sigmund Freud and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, despite our postmodern promiscuities and the porn industry that is our nation's mass entertainment, despite our jokes about our philandering president, we know surprisingly little about the mysteries of sexuality.

Why is gay-bashing almost always a male story? Why does one almost never hear about women murdering women over sexual winks? A friend, beautiful, in her 30s, heterosexual, tells me with a throaty laugh that she gets propositioned by women all the time in San Francisco. My friend declines, but says she is flattered.

In the case of the Wyoming murder, one wonders about the two girlfriends, now charged as accessories to the crime.

Typically, a sympathy exists between gay males and heterosexual females. Very early, the gay little boy learns to keep his eyes to himself when he is with other boys. Often, he finds ease and comfort in the company of girls -- the first of a lifetime of ironies.

It's no coincidence, I think, that calls today for a return to "family values" have come from men far more than women. Male Republicans (Trent Lott, Dick Armey) and self-styled religious leaders (Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell) have recently mocked homosexuals and portrayed homosexuality as a key measure of what's wrong in America -- our lack of family values.

In truth, America, perhaps more than any other nation of the world, is not a country of family values. We treasure the individual's right to create her own identity. Most of us left families behind in the "old country." Most American parents raise their kids to leave home.

Lately, America's anti-family attitudes have spread to mom -- the last holdout. Whereas once mom was the one who tried to hold an unruly family together, now she wants out. Mom wants a career; mom wants an abortion; and mom doesn't want to be saddled with her husband's surname.

So the "family values" crowd is mad at mom, and meanwhile, homosexuals are becoming more defiant in our public lives. We are "out," no longer content to be cast as sissies or pansies.

Institutional America is struggling now with homosexuality because gays are proclaiming our utter normalcy. For example: I want to be a Marine and openly gay, or: I want to have my relationship with another person of my own sex sanctified by my church, just like you.

According to media reports, Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was trilingual. He had just returned form Europe. Clearly, he was a young man unafraid of the world.

Typically, the sexual left -- in its cultural war with the religious right -- likes to portray gays as victims in heterosexual America. But as two Supreme Court justices complained in recent decisions, homosexuals in America have assumed great power, both economic and cultural.

As a gay man, I do not expect other Americans -- male or female -- to approve of my sexuality. But I demand the right to be. And I refuse to be saddled with responsibility for what is wrong with male-female relations.

The men who murdered Matthew Shepard are not, I think, typical of most heterosexuals in America. But their anger against him is, I think, telling. They hated Matthew Shepard not because he was a loser in America, but because he was winning.

And who knows? Maybe that's what they desperately needed to disprove to their girlfriends.

By Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

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