I was still a year away from coming out but I knew by then that I was gay. So did everyone else (they just had the good sense to let me develop at my own pace).
My mother and father were especially protective during this time. I remember my mom not wanting me (an 18 year old boy!) to be out after 10pm. For a time they both checked in more than normal.
I, of course, was terrified. I was afraid of people finding out. I was horrified that something like this could happen. But I was also blessed. My parents became protective. My friends became supportive. And I hadn’t done anything. A cute, skinny boy had been killed a thousand miles away and I was cocooned as a teenager. Jadin Bell wasn’t.
Fast forward to the early hours of January 19, 2013; I’m 32, nearing the end of my time as a teacher. Later that year a parent will threaten me and shout homophobic slurs in front of 300 first, second, and third graders. But that morning, Jadin Bell, a 15 year old boy, makes the decision to take his own life. He had been relentlessly bullied, online and to his person, by peers and adults with little intervention.
This happened in my country; the home of the free and the land of the brave.
I taught in public schools for a decade; during that time I had a few hundred children. They’re all mine. All teachers, even the reformed, feel very possessive of even their most difficult students. I adored mine. And they would come to school each morning and tell me stories of their lives. These stories were different from stories I knew.
They would tell me of their parents being arrested. The police would come in the night, guns drawn and take mom or dad away. They would tell me of being pulled over and having to wait on the side of the road while their cars were searched. Their backpacks were spilled open too.
And on February 26, 2012 (I’m 31 and I teach first grade), a grown man follows a 17 year old boy and kills him in ‘self defense.’ Trayvon Martin had just bought candy from a local store. He looks like a boy I know.
My friends started telling stories now and I discovered that I don’t know a single person of dark skin who has not had a gun pulled on them (many by police and in urban centers). These are my friends and family. These are people from all walks of life, from high school drop outs to Ivy League grads, AND every single one of them has had a gun drawn and pointed in their direction.
I know guns. I grew up with guns. I’ve had guns in my possession while in the presence of police. I have NEVER had a gun drawn on me. On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri (I’m nearly 34, an author and artist). Now, acquaintances start telling stories – one man was walking down a major street when three police cars suddenly surround him and the officers jump out, weapons drawn. He ‘looked’ like the suspect. Or of times they’d been pulled over, handcuffed at gun point and searched, all the while being called ‘boy.’ These examples occurred in Los Angeles.
And other stories start to appear on social media. Suddenly I see people I know, people from all walks of life – high school drop outs to Ivy League grads – share about ‘losing rights’ and ‘protecting religious freedom’ and ‘standing their ground.’ And I’m made afraid all over again. I feel the same sense of horror I felt when Matthew Shepard was discovered. The faces in these paintings – these stories – could be my students or my friends; they could easily be me.
It’s like anew every time another sweet boy is pushed to suicide, such as Tyler Clementi who was 18 years old when he jumped from the George Washington Bridge on September 22, 2010. I had just celebrated my 30th birthday; he had been publicly outed and shamed on campus and across social media.
It’s like anew when the body of a young woman is found. Transgender women, such as Gwen Araujo, who was beaten to death by four men on October 3, 2002, have 1 in 12 rate of violent mortality in the United States (I was 22 at the time and the hardest thing I had to do was break up with my boyfriend). Ty Underwood, the second trans woman to be murdered this year in the US, was found shot to death on January 26, 2015. Blake Brockington, an 18 year old transgender teen killed himself this week. I don’t want to hear that we’ve ‘come a long way since Angie Zapata‘ (who was beaten and bludgeoned to death on July 15, 2008).
Until violent deaths stop, we will not have come far enough.
Suicide rates among gay and transgender teens are unacceptable. Police violence against minorities (and the lack of accurate reporting and statistics) is reprehensible. Violence motivated by hate is unconscionable.
Though these stories terrify, though they stain the picket fences surrounding our star-spangled fields, they also transform and offer the opportunity for renewal.
These paintings are about awareness. As an artist and a teacher it is my duty to inform and transform. These paintings and their stories are my way of highlighting wrongdoing. They are my way of subverting what is so that we can create a world in which no teenager feels the need to take their life because of difference, where people can walk the streets of their neighborhoods without fear of gun violence REGARDLESS of the color of their skin, and where no one’s life is believed to be ‘less than human.’
These are stories of our own loss and shame. I challenge you to face them. I challenge you to share your own stories. We cannot fix the world by staying quiet.
Because these voices have been silenced, we must be compelled to speak.