There are historical moments when massive numbers of deaths—the centuries-long genocide of Native peoples in America, the deaths of the Middle Passage and slavery, the Holocaust, the AIDS pandemic—highlight death as a political lesson about the oppression of groups of people. There is nothing wrong with this. It is a logical and significant use of history, and certainly helps us see the larger picture of how human actions can cause enormous misery and harm. But such a use of death rarely allows us to contemplate the individual and what that loss might mean for a community or even movements.
Recently I was faced with two deaths that made me think about the historical contours of the lesbian and gay movement. I heard about the first death on October 31, 2008. Brother Vincent, a Marist and the vice principal of my New Jersey Catholic boys high school in the mid-1960s, died at the age of 73 in a hospital in New York. News of the second death came on December 14 via a panicked phone call from a fellow professor at Dartmouth. She had just gotten word that Cody Lavender, a student in Dartmouth’s Foreign Study Program in Edinburgh, had died after falling from a fourth floor balcony in the residence hall at the local university. Cody, age 20, was a junior who was jointly majoring in women’s and gender studies and religion. He was a Navaho from Arizona, openly gay and very politically active. There have been few details about his death, although the police have so far ruled out foul play, leaving open the possibility of an accident or suicide.
These two deaths made me think about the nature of choice and community especially in relationship to queerness. I have no proof that Brother Vincent was gay. All of the students at the school thought he was—although he wasn’t as obviously gay as some of the other brothers on the teaching staff. He was aloof, officious, and purposefully intimidating, but students did have begrudging respect for him.
My main memory of him was being called to his office to be disciplined. In the spring of 1964, after being queer-baited by a fellow student for weeks, I snapped, attacked him, and wrestled him to the floor in sheer anger and frustration. Although he was bigger and no doubt stronger than me, I had caught him by surprise and was proceeding to punch him in the face. I was quickly pulled off him and sent to Brother Vincent’s office.
After being chastised, Brother Vincent told me to be sure it didn’t happen again. This was extraordinary. He often suspended students for letting their hair reach the collar of their suit jackets. While the issue of queer baiting was never raised, I am certain he understood exactly what had happened.
After his death I keep wondering what Brother Vincent’s life would have been like if he had, in fact, been gay. He was born in 1935 and entered the Marist Brothers Juniorate in 1949 at the age of 14. He professed vows in 1952 and lived 56 years with the Marists.
I have no idea what this might have been like for a gay man at the time. I know plenty of gay men who became priests and teaching brothers in the 1960s and even the 1970s before they came out, but I have little access to the actual internal experience of a religious commitment that included celibacy.
Certainly, Brother Vincent—if he had been gay—could have left the Marists and lived his life differently. Although this was before the birth of the Gay Liberation Movement, there were plenty of men his age who made the brave choice to live more openly gay lives. The Stonewall riots occurred in 1969—Brother Vincent was 34 at the time and I wonder what he thought of it. I had graduated high school two years earlier and it certainly changed my life. I now knew what to do with the anger that prompted me to assault that student years earlier.
Brother Vincent found his community in the Marists; I found mine in the newly burgeoning gay liberation movement. I have worked in queer politics and publishing since 1970 and this was the world that sustained my life, gave me a vision, and allowed me to build a family of friends, lovers, and companions—all, as Edward Carpenter and Walt Whitman would have said, comrades. It also gave me a career in teaching. This was certainly not the usual career path for boys from Catholic high schools in the 1960s. What would Brother Vincent have thought of this? Would he be shocked, dismayed, envious? In some odd way Brother Vincent means much more to me with the distance of death between us than he did alive.
I feel no such distance from Cody. I saw him frequently at school. He had taken three courses with me and was planning on taking another this coming spring. He was a great student, always willing to push himself, interested in a wide range of ideas and concepts only vaguely associated with what we were studying. The last paper he wrote for me, in a class about post-WWII queer cinema, explored the links between violence and queerness in Hollywood films. It was provocative and thoughtful. Cody’s strength as an intellectual was that he was interested in so many things and willing to think them through.
Cody was also very active with campus queer politics and was head of the Dartmouth Gay Straight Alliance, which he helped rename the GSXYZ—a parody of the increasingly long list of initials that have been accumulating in recent years. He wanted to continue his queer activism after college and had organized a Proposition 8 protest in front of the American Embassy in Edinburgh days before his death.
I am faced with these two deaths—and lives—that seem so wildly different in identity, length, activity, and intention.But are they really so different? The further away I get from the Catholicism of my high school, the more I can see how the social justice and social action philosophy of the Marists helped shaped my activism. While I have no idea of Brother Vincent’s actual sexuality or his reasons for joining the Marists, I do know that he entered a community of men who lived together and pursued what they saw as essentially world-changing work through teaching and advocating for social justice. At school we were urged to do community work, join civil rights marches, and question the war in Vietnam, a particularly bold step since the Catholic hierarchy backed U.S. policies in Vietnam.
Cody’s life may not have been, in some respects, all that different. I see students every day who have the same problems coming out that men had in the 1960s and 1970s. While young gay people now have a wider range of infrastructures to help them deal with problems, they still encounter pervasive homophobia in school, workplace, and family. In the past six years five students’ parents completely cut them off when they came out. If Cody’s death was a suicide was it prompted by queer hatred or enormous neglect? If so, what does this mean for the idea of progress? Did his queer community at Dartmouth fail him? The larger queer community? His community at home in Arizona? Some combination of all of them?
Communities—however we define them and understand their parameters—have an enormous impact on us, both positive and negative. Though we are often sustained by our communities, even at their best they are never really all that we may hope them to be. Communities are what people are able to bring to them. Politically progressive communities—maybe especially, queer communities—have been lifelines and life-saving sanctuaries to many of us, but we have to admit their failings and their internal problems. Perhaps we need to think through a new progressive critique of the myriad and complex connections between individuals and community.
Brother Vincent, in some sense, gave up a personal identity to become part of a religious community. What did he lose and gain? Did Cody give up something to become part of the queer community? Have I given up some sense of myself in four decades of political activism in the queer cultural and political community?
In some ways a community’s response to death is a test of its strength. We saw this with AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s when, amid personal and social devastation, individuals formed and reformed community responses that saved, prolonged, and nourished lives. Dealing with death on that massive level was both draining and empowering, necessary, and, on a fundamental level, infuriating that the burden had to be carried by the queer community alone—for a time, anyway.
When I think about the changes that have occurred in LGBT communities over the last 30 to 40 years, the most striking is that the concept of community is very different from what it was, especially for gay and lesbian youth. While progress has been made in constructing support systems for queer youth, these structures have focused on dealing with the individual, not with the community. The professionalization of support has shifted the paradigm from a community model to an individual model. In the past the personal was political—now the personal is just the personal. Now, a personal problem is a personal problem. An ethos of privatization has occurred that was never there before.
This shift is seen in how LGBT political battles are framed today. In the past we fought for the right to be public, to claim the public sphere. Today the fight is for the right to privacy and nowhere is that seen more than in the fight for same-sex marriage, the most profoundly private of social institutions.
I think the important question here is how this idea of privatization affects the individual. Do people know one another as much as was possible before? Do they see themselves as members of a cohesive group or as individuals who simply share some similar sexual desires, who might join together to fight for same-sex marriage so that they can then retire to privatized worlds of domesticity?
Cody’s and Brother Vincent’s deaths came at different times, under different circumstances, and within different senses of community. Yet thinking about them I can see political parallels. The first is that people’s lives, particularly the lives of gay people, are always more complicated than we think at first sight or judgment. Second, that as much as things have gotten better in this world, there is still much further to go and reasons to be glad as well as to mourn.
Michael Bronski is a long-time activist and writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications.