Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Calling it out

I wrote this letter to the Office of the District Attorney today, and I copied various people on it. I'm having trouble letting this go, I realize, so I'm hoping that I can write it out.


To Whom It May Concern:

I'm writing in response to the decision of the district attorney's office to allow Kevin Harrigan and Philip Williams what can only be described as a sweetheart deal to escape punishment for their September, 2014 attack on Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught.

I don't expect Seth Williams, Mike Barry, or any heterosexual man to understand how it feels to live in a world in which, at any time, you can be in danger of life and limb simply for walking too close to the person you're spending your life with. I don't expect them to understand just how frightening the term "faggot" is to gay men, because when we hear that, we know that violence is not far behind. I don't expect them to understand how it is to grow up believing that the only way you'll be permitted to survive is by lurking in the shadows and alleys of life, leaving the main streets to the straight folks.

I do, however, expect the Office of the District Attorney to understand that when it allows confessed gay bashers to walk away without so much as seeing a day in prison, it sends a definite message to those who like to harm gay people. That message is that breaking the face of a gay man is, at least in Philadelphia, no big deal. The city would prefer that not happen, but if it does, well, a small fine, some probation, and a promise to sin no more will make it all go away. It's a message all gay people understand, I assure you, as we've heard it most of our lives.

I'm sure that Hesse and Haught approved this deal, but in my view that is not sufficient excuse. Crimes are committed not only against individuals but against communities, which is why we have a district attorney in the first place. The gay community of Philadelphia is not well served by this deal, particularly since part of the deal will bring into the safe spaces we've created the very men we're trying to avoid. I cringe at the thought of entering the William Way Community Center to find Kevin Harrigan or Philip Williams staffing the front desk, destroying the community's sense of safety for their own personal growth.

I know that I'm shouting into the wind here; the plea deal is done and the DA's office doesn't care how I feel about it. However, I believe that democracy functions best when elected officials are called out for their mistakes, even when they don't think they've made one. So I'm calling this out, because even though I'll never feel quite as safe in Philadelphia as I used, I still believe that things can change if we all work hard enough. I'm sorry that, on this day, hard enough just wasn't good enough.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Dirty fucking faggot

That’s what Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught heard from the group of heterosexuals who accosted them in Center City Philadelphia a little more than a year ago. What they heard yesterday in court from two of those same heterosexuals was that the beating they received that night wasn’t about sexual orientation. What I heard was a flashback to the very first time the word “faggot” was used against me.

I was seventeen years old, fresh out of high school and working as a courier for a Center City law office. I’d hand deliver letters, pleadings and other documents to other lawyers, to court offices, etc., and sometimes during those runs I’d take care of personal business. One day I was in a mall (the Gallery, for Philadelphia residents) and approaching a Waldenbooks when I heard, “Are you gay?” I turned and saw, gathered to one side, three or four boys about my age, looking at me the way you look at a cockroach you’re about to squash. I knew better than to reply--back then every gay person knew that “are you gay?” from a group of straight men was the rattle before the snake bite. Instead, I hurried inside the store, hoping they wouldn’t pursue, and as I moved off I heard one of them mutter, “Faggot.”

Inside, I pretended to browse, but a block of ice had formed in my belly. This was 1987, and back then there was no assurance that, if something started to happen, that anyone would interfere. I could have asked the store staff for a phone to call the police, but I was far from certain they’d allow it, or that the police would even care. It was just as possible that I’d end up in trouble myself; after all, hadn’t I looked at them a little too long? Maybe I’d made a pass and caused gay panic. Remember that this was less than 10 years after a San Francisco jury had let Dan White off easy for killing their own mayor, all because he also happened to knock off a homosexual while he was at it. A furtive glance outside revealed that those boys were still camped near the only entrance to the store, watching--for me, I feared. No one was going to protect me. No one was going to save me.

It didn’t take long for these truths to register with my still-developing, seventeen-year-old brain, so I did the only thing I could think to do. I walked casually towards the back of the store, went through the back office hoping no one would stop me, and slipped into the service corridor that runs behind all the stores. As I hurried along that white-tiled expanse of hallway, I felt not joy at the cleverness of my escape but shame that I was slinking away down an alley after having been kicked off the main street. In that moment I felt like a dirty fucking faggot.

Twenty-seven years later, when Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught had their “are you gay?” moment, they did not slink away like stray cats. They had grown up in a more enlightened time, and they believed that they didn’t need to stand for such things. Philip Williams, Kevin Harrigan and Kathryn Knott thought otherwise, and they drove home that point by shattering the face of one of those men. When I heard the news I flashed back to my back-hallway escape, but I told myself that society had changed since that day. The response from police, media, and the public all seemed to confirm that there were new rules for a new millennium.

Unfortunately, we learned yesterday that the district attorney’s office was partying like it was 1987. Two of the accused--Williams and Harrigan--negotiated a sweet deal that gets them some probation, some community service, and a ban on entering Center City, a ban that everyone admits is almost impossible to enforce.

I understand that Hesse and Haught were on board with this deal, and let me be 100% clear that I harbor them no ill will. They’re doing the best they can to deal with a situation that should never, ever have happened, and that was far worse for them than mine was for me. They are tending to themselves, just as they should. However, by allowing Williams and Harrigan to wriggle away from real punishment, the City of Philadelphia sends a message that, no matter how many gay couples get legally married, it’s still pretty much OK to beat up one. Which is pretty much the way it was back in 1987.

There’s not much I can do about this terrible deal. The district attorney’s office is certainly not going to change course, and there’s nothing the mayor, my councilman, or my state representative can do either. And, yes, I know that the fact that outrage has registered at all is a sign that I live in a much more enlightened society than I did when I fled down a back hallway to avoid being beaten and/or killed. I’m sure that in a few days I’ll regain the confidence in the ultimate success of the gay rights movement. Right now, however, I just feel like a dirty fucking faggot.

Neil McGarry lives in Philadelphia and, with Emmy Award-winner Daniel Ravipinto, authors The Grey City novels, which Kirkus Reviews calls "a fresh, compelling twist on fantasy."