I remember at ten years old when I heard about Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson killing Matthew Shephard. Before the truck tore off the road, before the dark Wyoming field, before McKinney and Henderson spotted Shephard alone and drunk at a bar, he looked, they later testified, like he would have money. McKinney whispered a come-on into the inebriated Shephard's ear and convinced him to ride home with them. A few minutes later, just after midnight on October 7, 1998, McKinney hit Shephard on the head with an eight-inch Magnum revolver in the cab of his pickup. As McKinney pushed Shephard against a log fence, he beat the twenty-two-year-old's head with the steel gun, gouging his face and neck a dozen times, until a fracture opened that ran from the back of Shephard's skull to the front of his right ear. Shephard's brain stem drowned in blood as Henderson crucified him on the fence. He slipped into an fitful coma for six days before he died.
I remembered the boy on the fence among all the news stories that flooded the radio over the years, because by the time I heard it at ten years old I had a hazy awareness that I, too, deserved such a death, if being gay meant Matthew Shephard did.
At first, there were no rules regarding who was allowed to wear what in preschool. Over and over again I put on a blue skirt with an elastic waist that twirled when I spun in circles. I would make myself dizzy just so I could watch it rise around me. At this age, in Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan's Family Housing Childhood Development Center, whose brightly painted gables I called "the rainbow school," there wasn't any censure for a boy who went by Nicky to spin around in girl's clothes. The teacher I remember most vividly wore a thin gold cross necklace and once gamely fielded questions on the theme of "why you can't do number one and number two at the same time." At school, my wearing a skirt was no different from a girl wearing a lab coat.
But at home, my parents told me these behaviors were not acceptable. They banned cross-dressing and the ponies and dolls I had enjoyed at that age. So I wished angrily, as children do, that I could become something else. At about four years old, standing in front a mirror at home with my penis and testicles squeezed behind my thighs, I wished I were a girl. I just wanted to wear skirts. But only girls, I was told, could do that.
"It's not because 'we don't love you,'" they said to the whining accusation I made as a reflex to disappointment. It was not even because ponies threatened their vision for the ideal son. I know now that their fear sprang from parental instincts hardened in a world full of Aaron McKinneys and Russell Hendersons who wait rabid or drunk or hard-up somewhere just beyond their reach.
One night in college, I was crossing traffic when a man yelled from a car: "Hey, boy, nice shorts! Want to suck my dick? Want to suck my dick?"
Hate is not like that disrespect for a person too chatty or even like contempt for a former friend. Hate is not like anything. It goes deeper: it is a hate for your thin-walled lungs, the ribs that hold them, your shaking legs, for your weak arms that will not protect you. It is hate for the happiness you share with the man you love, and some hate for him, (either by extension or just for good measure). That kind of hate, actually, is probably a small thing to the men who have yelled these things at me over the years. Unphased by his own vitriol, such a man drives on unchallenged by the silent bystanders who may also share the hate that makes you feel slighter than an ant underfoot.
On Park Avenue once, a white-gloved doorman shouted as my boyfriend and I walked past his roost: "Put down the hands! Walk alone!" Did the other doorman, who stared but said nothing, feel the same way?
In summers when I was younger, my father tried in vain to instill a love of sports using games of catch behind our house. On one such humid Detroit day when I was about 12, between throws, he said:
"You shouldn't hold your wrists like that."
"Floppy. People will think you're effeminate."
When I was 18, I came out to my mother and father. They wore troubled smiles as they congratulated me. Calling me back into the kitchen, my mother's question "So, are you being safe?" meant, as I knew then, that she was thinking not only of HIV and the health of her only son but also the threats of a world where two years later, on a populated street in broad daylight, a man could yell from a passing car, "Hey, do those pants hurt?"
In that moment, I cannot hold back the scenes of Matthew Shephard's execution. Will holding my wrists loosely or taut, or how I wear my pants, trigger an Aaron McKinney or Russell Henderson to single me out? To make that moment the first down a road to a bloodied buck fence?
"Suck my dick"
"I'll kill you, you motherfucking faggot"
My first kiss was on a rainy doorstep the winter before I came out. It distracted me so much that I avoided crashing on the way home by luck and the graces of other drivers. I shook. As the rain rolled down the windows of the car, my shoulders unloosed a hateful knot so old I had never noticed it before I got out of the car to walk down the long road to someplace safe.