Thursday, July 7, 2011

Accessory to Murder: RIP Ryan Skipper

I am not au courant.  It takes me a year or two or three to catch up with our culture, even my own gay culture.  So I wasn’t at all surprised when a lesbian friend told me in March that I had to see a movie, made in 2008, entitled, Accessory to Murder: Our Culture's Complicity in the Death of Ryan Skipper.  Typical of me, I just this week sat down to watch it.  Today I finished my third viewing of this painful and remarkable documentary.

Ryan Skipper, 1981-2007
Ryan Skipper was a 25–year–old gay man who lived in Polk County, Florida, a rural “redneck” part of that State.  On March 14, 2007, after having dinner with a friend, Ryan was murdered.  Two local men, William Brown, Jr. (20 years old when he murdered Ryan), and Joseph Bearden (21 years old when he murdered Ryan) were convicted of the murder in 2009 and both of them are serving life sentences.

Almost from the time Ryan’s body was discovered, his murder has been treated as a hate crime.  The two murderers told people before the murder that they were going out to “get” a gay man.  After the murder, neither man tried to hide the murder; both of them practically bragged about it.  They were arrested soon after the murder.

The Polk County Sheriff, Grady Judd, an obvious good ole boy born and reared in Polk County, saw Ryan’s murder and its status as a gay hate crime as his ticket to national fame.  As soon as the two murderers were arrested and gave their statements, Sheriff Judd was holding press conferences telling the press as facts the version of the crime that the murderers had set forth in their statements.  No investigation had been done.  No sheriff’s deputies had attempted to verify the murderers’ accounts.  No one had spoken with Ryan’s family or his friends.  As a result, the press reported as fact the version of events that Sheriff Judd—and the murderers—had put forth: they said that Ryan had gone “cruising for sex” and had just “picked the wrong people.”  The murderers further accused Ryan of complicity in drug dealing and a plan to forge checks, lies that the Sheriff reported to the press as fact.  Later, officials of Polk County, but not Sheriff Judd, withdrew this version of events invented by the murderers and said outright that the two felons had invented this story to try to ameliorate their guilt.

In a rural, inhospitable environment, then, Ryan Skipper not only was the victim of a hate murder, he also was the victim of a hateful homophobic Sheriff who clearly identified with the murderers and easily thought the worst of the victim.  The film makes the point that wide–spread hatred of gay people is very common in rural communities all across the country and that our whole country, because of the way in which we view gay people, is an accessory to such crimes.

The experts in the film—psychologists, law enforcement officials, media experts, government administrators, religious ministers, and gay rights activists—all point to three aspects of our common American culture that creates the environment where this kind of crime can occur:

1.  Parents.  Parents teach their children to hate gay people.  Little kids aren’t born with this hatred, nor is such hatred automatic as kids grow up.  This hatred is taught!!!

2.  Churches.  In Ryan’s neighborhood, as in neighborhoods throughout the country, there are “Christian” churches that teach that gay people are an abomination, that their “chosen lifestyle” is satanic, and that practitioners of this “lifestyle” are evil and headed straight to hell.

3.  The Republican Party.  I was astounded that the careful “talking heads” in this film actually named the Republican Party as an accessory to anti–gay hate crimes in this country.  It’s true, of course, but I was surprised that these experts had the balls to say it.  One woman, a think tank person, quoted George W. Bush’s views of gay people in remarks he made during his second term, the time during which Ryan was murdered.  Gay people have no “special rights,” Bush said, as he promised to veto the Matthew Shepherd Act that would extend federal hate crime protection to gay people.  Marriage cannot include unions between gay people, Bush said, so the Constitution would have to be amended to prevent this travesty.  When the President of the United States over and over again marginalizes, demeans, and insults gay people, then two young rednecks in Florida have the highest authority in the land on their side.

As with almost any documentary like this one, at the end the experts try to give advice on how things can improve.  In this film though, the advice was the best I have heard in any of the films having to do with anti–gay hate crimes, bullying, or bashing.  The psychologist, an expert in hate crimes from Rollins College in Polk County, said that, when asked, residents of rural communities almost to a person say that they do not know anyone who is gay.  They know gay people, of course, they just don’t know that some of the people they know are gay.  The psychologist said that this distance from gay people does several things: it makes it easier to demonize gay people because gay people are an abstract concept similar to an ogre in a childrens’ fairy tale; it makes it easier to do harm to a gay person when one is discovered because such a person really isn’t a person, he or she is just an idea; and it makes it easier to continue to hate gay people because the haters aren’t really hating people, they’re hating evil itself.  The way to change this, the psychologist said, is for gay people to have the courage to identify themselves to their families, friends, and coworkers.  Coming out in this way gives being gay a human face and a textured personality that in all ways conflicts with the evil stereotypes the haters have been taught by their parents, their Churches, and the Republican Party.

I have seen a number of films about anti–gay hate crimes, and I have read a number of books on the subject.  Accessory to Murder: Our Culture's Complicity in the Death of Ryan Skipper is only 70 minutes long, but I believe that—in its understated, factual, calm way—it is the best of all of them.

One final word about Ryan Skipper.  He came from a loving and accepting family.  His parents and his brother loved him, and told him they loved him.  He had many, many friends and was by all accounts a generous and loving friend.  Like so many victims of anti–gay crimes, he seems to have been a sweet, somewhat naive and trusting young man.  One friend said of him, “Ryan was tender.  Some people think that being tender isn’t manly.  Actually, being tender makes a man a very special man.”

Rest in peace, tender Ryan.

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