As a part of its LGBTQ Health and Wellness Week, the Spectrum Center hosted a talk titled Queer Martyrdom: The Religious and Sexual Politics of LGBTQ Inclusion. This event featured guest speaker Brett Krutzsch, a scholar from New York University and author of the book “Dying to Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics.” Krutzsch spoke to an audience of about 20 students, staff and community members.
Krutzsch discussed both historical and modern issues pertaining to the intersection of religion and the LGBTQ+ community. He referenced two anecdotal stories about LGBTQ youth Matthew Shepard and Fred F.C. Martinez, whose murders sparked controversy in contrasting ways. Shepard was an openly gay college student in Wyoming who was kidnapped, robbed and beaten in 1998. He was tied to a fence and left to die in near-freezing temperatures. He succumbed to his injuries several days after the attack and quickly became a symbol in LGBTQ+ activists’ fight for acceptance and equality.
“Parents throughout the country felt that Matthew could have been their son, an idea many had never contemplated before of a gay person,” Krutzsch said. “Instead of describing him as an adult man who had boyfriends or lovers, he becomes a kid within the American nuclear family.”
Krutzsch said the public connected to Shepard’s story, citing several journalists who wrote about the murder and how it sparked national response.
“We have this Christian rhetoric that he is continuing to lead and teach others after he dies and in doing that, Shepard transforms into an image of gay men completely disassociated from public sex,” Krutzsch said.
Martinez, who was murdered in Colorado in 2001, was “nádleehí,” a Navajo word used for a man with feminine attributes. 18-year-old Shaun Murphy beat 16-year-old Martinez to death with a rock, and received a 40-year sentence for the crime. Murphy was paroled in 2019 after serving 17 years in prison.
Krutzsch said because Martinez was a person of color, his murder carried a significantly different narrative than Shepard’s.
“We might compare Martinez’s murder to the high rate of violence against gender-nonconforming people broadly,” Krutzsch said. “For example, of the known murders of transgender women in the last year, 91% were of color, most were under the age of 25 and they were primarily poor. This reveals the facade of assimilation to the secular of Christian culture of the United States as the pinnacle of progress, equality or acceptance.”
Krutzsch commented on comparisons of Shepard’s murder to Christ.
“I think the sacrifice language is a way of saying that his death had a productive political value, which is complicated and problematic,” Krutzsch said.
Community member Kyle Storey attended the event and commented on the differences seen in media coverage of these two individuals, particularly “the narrative building around LGBT individuals” and the “two kinds of contrasting viewpoints or news that formed around those deaths and those individuals.”
Rackham student Tim Williams also noted the event’s relation to the intersection of politics and religion today.
“I thought it was really interesting when discussing the gender inherent in Christianity that’s not usually inherent in other cultures, especially how that affects our politics today,” Williams said. “It was a very interesting comparison to two analogous cases that theoretically should have had the same conclusion but do (not) because of identity politics.”