Joyfully Jay M/M Reviews and More.
So, my newly-reissued book, Bashed, is all about a tragic hate crime and its aftermath. The book revolves around an atrocity that happens all too frequently for the gay community (Google some statistics and you’ll be appalled). Fortunately, Bashed is also filled with hope and ultimately details a journey back toward life and love.
But what I wanted to talk about today is not the horror of a hate crime, where someone is physically hurt—or even killed—but about the root of hate crimes, homophobia, in its subtler forms. The excerpt below demonstrates the way hate toward gay people can manifest itself in a way that may not leave a bruise, but hurts just as much nonetheless. I am grateful that I have never been physically brutalized for being who I am (at least not as an adult), but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been the brunt of prejudice. I’ve seen the downcast eyes and the friendliness drop when I mention my husband to a clerk in a store, or the sudden withering of enthusiasm from an old school friend when they realize, from my Facebook page, that I’ve become a bona fide queer. I’m not here to rant, but I know what prejudice feels like.
And so does Donald, my main character in Bashed, who is trying to process the loss of the man he loved so much when he feels the hateful tingle of homophobia (at the wake for his boyfriend)….
He looked around. The place was crowded. He never realized Mark had so many friends and family members. He and Mark had sort of cocooned themselves, as lovers often do in the early months, against the outside world. Donald would have said they were still in their honeymoon phase. He hadn’t even seen Grace as much as he used to once Mark came along.
Was Mark in the crowd right now, wearing a clever disguise? He would be eager to hear the loving words those left behind uttered, the fond memories and funny recollections. Would he be feeling much the same sense of loss that Donald was feeling? Perhaps he was one of the guys gathered near the front door. They certainly looked enough like Mark: big boned, ruddy complexions, and the curly blond hair that had so turned Donald’s head.
Grace brought him out of his reverie and wishful thinking. “Check out the guys by the door up there,” she said softly. “Those have to be Mark’s brothers. They look exactly like him.”
Of course. Mark had two brothers, Phil and Steven, both older, but not by much. Donald had seen pictures of them but had yet to meet them. He had yet to meet any of Mark’s family, in fact, and that had been a sore spot in their relationship. But Donald, the older, supposedly wiser member of the couple should have understood Mark’s trepidation. It would have meant bringing home his first boyfriend.
“Yeah. Quite a resemblance.” Donald drew his lips into a tight line. He wished they hadn’t come to the funeral home, to the wake that had been delayed for reasons he didn’t quite understand. He looked at his sister, whose eyes were rimmed in red. She had pulled her hair into a bun and wore a simple black dress, heels, and a strand of pearls that had once belonged to their mother. Grace had done enough crying for the both of them in their short time at the funeral parlor. Apparently she had no problems believing it truly was Mark in the casket.
“You know what? I was thinking. What if that box up there is empty? What if Mark isn’t really in there? What if he’s still alive?”
Grace’s mouth dropped open, and her face took on an expression of stricken fear. She looked nervously around her. Donald supposed it was to see if anyone on adjoining folding chairs had heard his remark. She smiled, but it was an uncertain smile that bore more of a relationship to a grimace than an expression of joy.
“What are you talking about?” Grace cocked her head and put her hand to Donald’s face.
He moved away. Her hand dropped. “What are you doing? Checking for fever?”
“No, of course not. But, sweetheart, what you said, that’s crazy. You do know that, right?” Her brows furrowed, and she leaned close enough that he could smell cinnamon, the Dentyne she had tucked into her mouth.
Donald shook his head and sighed. “It’s just wishful thinking. Maybe trying to understand why I have yet to cry over this.”
Grace squeezed his hand. “Oh, baby brother, that’s easy. You’re still in shock. You haven’t accepted things yet. It’s understandable.”
Donald stared again at the casket, his gaze roaming over all the mourners, the little groups of them gathered in clusters, all speaking in hushed, serious tones, as if they wanted their conversation to match the muted wallpaper, ecru walls, plush carpet, and the overly heavy drapery.
What did any of this have to do with Mark?
He turned to his sister. “I know Mark is not in that box.”
She cocked her head and frowned.
He waved her away. “Listen. He’s not in that box. He’s not in this room. I’m not crazy. Sure, wishful thinking made me entertain—for like, five seconds—that Mark isn’t really dead, but I know he is. But I also know Mark isn’t in that box. Not Mark. Mark’s shell. Mark’s body. Maybe. Those things might be there. But Mark is no longer with us. So he can’t be in that box. He’s not in this room either. He wouldn’t be caught dead….” Donald sputtered out a mournful laugh at his unintentional quip. “At a place like this. Mark was full of humor and life. If he were here, he’d be cracking jokes in a corner, trying to make people laugh. He’d be trying to turn this wake into a party, just like his Irish ancestors probably did at one time.”
Grace put a hand on her brother’s chest. Donald could see she was relieved. “You’re so right.” She started to say something else and stopped. Donald had seen, peripherally, the movement he supposed had caught his sister’s eye. One of Mark’s brothers was heading their way.
Donald marveled again at how much the man looked like Mark, albeit an older variation on the same theme. He had the same wild blond curls, although his were more tamed by his shorter haircut, the same broad shoulders, although this man sported a gut Mark didn’t have, and the same cherubic face. He was heading toward them with purpose, a smile lighting up his features.
Donald swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, and tried to smile back. He didn’t know if he was ready to finally meet some of Mark’s family. He supposed he could mouth the same words that had been mouthed at funerals since time immemorial—sorry for your loss, such a tragedy. He could only hope the sympathy would be returned.
The man stood before them, smiling. Grace started to say, “We’re so sorry about your brother—” But the man cut her off and turned his attention to Donald.
He continued to smile, but his words were tinged with acid. “You the boyfriend?”
Donald’s mouth grew a little dryer. He nodded, suddenly unable to put his brain and tongue together to form speech.
“I just wanted to say how happy I am to lay eyes on you. How happy we all are—here in this room—to finally see you.” He cocked his head, grin undiminished, blue eyes (so like Mark’s!) twinkling. “See, I wanted to thank you.” The smile faltered for an instant, and a sob went through the man’s body, like a tremor. His eyes welled with tears. Then the emotion vanished, replaced once more by that hateful, terrible smile. Donald thought it would have been so much better if he were frowning, furious, yelling at the top of his lungs. “See, I wanted to say thanks for making my little brother a fag.”
“Oh, now—” Grace whimpered, but the man put up a warning hand near her face to cut her off.
“Thank you very much, sir. Before he met you, my brother was normal, just one of the guys. He played touch football with us; he did normal things. He even had a girlfriend. Thanks to you, he’s dead. Thanks to you, he was so badly beaten that we delayed the funeral so they could work on him, make him presentable so we could have a last look at him.” He glanced over at the closed casket. “You can see how well that worked out.” The man smiled more brightly and nodded, as if he and everyone around him agreed with what he was saying, as if he were speaking the voice of reason. And even though his voice was soft, the intensity with which he spoke caused the other people talking around them to go silent. Donald’s face felt hot as he realized people were eavesdropping. He wondered if they felt pity or hatred for him, wondered if there was any ground between the two extremes.
“Yeah, you ‘turned’ him. Isn’t that what you pansies like to do? Look at you. You were old enough to be my brother’s father! Why couldn’t you have just left him alone?” He turned away for a moment, and when he turned back, the smile was gone, and tears were rolling down his face. His mouth was drawn into a tight line. “None of us would be here now if it weren’t for you, you perverted son of a bitch.”
Donald’s face felt even more heat, as if it were on fire. He was so stunned by the man’s words, his mind had gone blank. He could think of no rational way to respond. The whole funeral parlor had now gone silent. He realized people were staring at him and Grace.
And he realized he didn’t belong here.
Another of Mark’s brothers, the eldest, Donald imagined, with a bald pate, came over and took the man who had just bashed Donald verbally by the arm. “C’mon now, man, this isn’t right. Let’s just go outside and cool off.” The other man cast a glance back at Donald, and Donald was grateful to see that there was sympathy in his gaze. He mouthed the word “sorry” over his brother’s shoulder and continued to pull him away.
Grace and Donald sat in stunned silence for only a few minutes. Grace took his hand. “I think we should go. You want to say good-bye?” she gestured with her head, stiffly, toward the coffin at the front of the room.
Donald managed to gather some spit in his mouth, enough to say, “No. I’m not saying good-bye.”
Grace spoke softly, her voice infused with kindness. “Then let’s just go.”
Dear old Grace, Donald thought, bless her heart for holding it together when she could have easily let everything spin out of control. My rock.
Donald followed his sister out of the funeral home, feeling again the heat in his face as conversations went silent as they passed, as gazes bore, like lasers, into his back.
Outside, the pair of Mark’s brothers stood stiffly next to one another, smoking cigarettes. Neither was speaking. They simply stared forward, two strangers who happened to be occupying the same place at nearly the same time. Donald could feel the tension coming off them, though.
“Just a minute,” he said to Grace. He felt himself begin to tremble as he walked away from his sister and her comforting closeness. But he couldn’t leave things as they were. He neared the brothers and caught the gaze of the one who had spoken so cruelly to him inside. The man glared at Donald, ready for a fight.
Donald cleared his throat and said, in a soft voice, “I’m really sorry you lost Mark. But I lost him too. And when you’re calmer, maybe you’ll realize that it wasn’t me who killed him, or the fact that we loved each other, but it was attitudes like yours.” Donald swallowed. “I hope, for Mark’s memory, you can come to see that.”
Donald didn’t wait for the man to respond. He simply turned, took Grace’s hand, and walked away.
It should have been a perfect night out. Instead, Mark and Donald collide with tragedy when they leave their favorite night spot. That dark October night, three gay-bashers emerge from the gloom, armed with slurs, fists, and an aluminum baseball bat.
The hate crime leaves Donald lost and alone, clinging to the memory of the only man he ever loved. He is haunted, both literally and figuratively, by Mark and what might have been. Trapped in a limbo offering no closure, Donald can’t immediately accept the salvation his new neighbor, Walter, offers. Walter’s kindness and patience are qualities his sixteen-year-old nephew, Justin, understands well. Walter provides the only sense of family the boy’s ever known. But Justin holds a dark secret that threatens to tear Donald and Walter apart before their love even has a chance to blossom.