chapa-olgin

An American Problem: The Shooting of Mollie Olgin and Mary Kristene Chapa

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From about the time I was 13 until I graduated high school, I had bullies. Those bullies have since grown up to become contributing members of society in respectable professions. I frequently find myself wondering what I might say to them, if anything, were I to see them now. Would I simply backhand them and retort, “Ugh, now I’ve got slime on my hands!” and sashay away? I’ve at least had the privilege in the ensuing 15 years to evolve, get stronger, become intelligent, and lead a rich, wonderful life. This chance to grow up and evolve is something I found myself suddenly thankful for when I heard about the shooting of Mollie Olgin and Mary Kristene Chapa.

In June, I was thinking critically about Pride in New York. Same-sex couples can now marry. New York is not the only state in the union where same-sex couples can marry—others include D.C., Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Iowa—but it is, by far, one of the few states where LGBT individuals wield considerable power. In New York we run entire industries like fashion, media, and art; we have entire neighborhoods and communities that cater exclusively to us, sometimes aggressively turning away our heterosexual friends. Gay is the new normal in New York. We’ve come long, long way, baby. That we can hold hands with whomever we want while walking down the street, without fear of persecution is a sign of the times getting better.  And while this shift is definitely a step in the right direction, it brings new challenges—chief among them the transformation of Pride into something original festival organizers wouldn’t necessarily recognize.

In 1970, the first Pride March was staged in New York, as part of the “Gay Liberation” movement. It was borne of the frustration our gay forefathers felt when dealing with illegal police raids on gay bars—a crackdown against same-sex culture. Since then, the staging of Pride parades, nationally and globally, has served as a measure of how progressive a civilized society appears. The political punch behind Pride demonstrations has always been to encourage heteronormative culture to revamp antiquated social policies, and to begin protecting the interests of LGBT individuals. Pride was ambitious in scope, but necessary. But like most movements, a lot can change in decades; ideals can get muddied and the spirit of something so necessary can start flailing towards frivolous.

Over the years, the movement has become depoliticized: the “March” has become replaced by a “Parade,” “Liberation” by “Pride,” and political intent by corporate sponsorship. Rather than leading a subversive call-to-action, Pride itself is now a commodified slice of gay identity, claimed by corporations like Citibank, Absolut Vodka, AT&T, Delta Airlines, among others—those who can co-opt the message of LGBT equality in a bid to leverage  progressive-seeming brand equity. What started as counterculture protest has become appropriated by the mainstream, at the risk of alienating those who still need the counterculture spirit of Pride.

What’s fundamental about Pride is the spirit of giving back and helping out. For those of us who successfully come out and forge happy lives in spite of whatever narrative our hometown cultures provided, we become tacitly responsible for helping to lift those who might be having a little trouble and those who need a voice. Unfortunately, this is one facet of the LGBT community that’s quickly disappearing. The stratification of the community is accelerating. Personalities like Andy Cohen, Anderson Cooper, and Rachel Maddow are among some of the most noted LGBT individuals in America, wielding the power to make significant changes in society. Yet all of them demonstrate an inability to connect with those of us who don’t regularly enjoy their privilege, be it cultural or financial. These are famous, wealthy individuals who can afford to have their points of view and not lose their jobs or not rely on family for financial and emotional support; these are people who have a quality of life that is atypical of the LGBT experience.

It’s not that we should begrudge celebrities the privilege they’ve fought hard to earn, but we should hold them accountable for not lowering the ladder behind them. LGBT equality is at a critical crossroads in America but this community continues to further divide itself. Granted, those of us who can afford to enter into the culture of a progressive-minded city like New York sometimes forget that losing sight of that privilege is a risk we all run—especially when we consider how hard and fast we have to act in order to move ahead. It’s a bad habit that has forced the most powerful in our ranks—those like Cohen, Cooper, and Maddow—to become LGBT voices operating in an ether without connecting back to the larger LGBT community.

Representing only a sample of similar individuals in positions of power, they have remained tight-lipped on crises like that which befell Chapa and Olgin. It ran counter to their experiences as LGBT individuals and more importantly, to the Hieronymus Bosch-hued idyll they might be attempting to superimpose on LGBT society. Their experiences represent an airbrushed LGBT experience—where issues like color, money, and fear of persecution are no longer tangible. In many ways, NYC Pride has become reflective of 1% of the LGBT community rather than its 99%.

This inconsistency and perceived cost of entry into the “legitimized LGBT” sphere is why I saw myself sitting this Pride out. There are lots of colors and sounds, overpriced drinks, a general sense of pandemonium, but a decreasing sense of purpose. Pride is no longer about solidarity, but about hiked-up cover charges at bars where everyone feels entitled to get too sloppy.

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It’s a sharp contrast to the stark minimalism surrounding the fate of the lesbian couple shot in Portland, Texas. Portland is a small city located deep in Texas, with just above 15,000 citizens and a median income per household just under $50,000. Portland, Texas is the exact opposite of the blurry water-colored madness of Pride in a city like New York. Yet, Portland, Texas doesn’t fit the stereotypical portrait of homophobic small towns. In fact Olgin and Chapa enjoyed strong support of their community. Why is this story still unable to remain buoyant?

Mary Christine Chapa

Mary Christine Chapa

Do we blame the media—in all its iterations—for its colossal failure in keeping this story prominent–especially during a season when Pride festivities occur not only in America, but globally? In an era that finds even the President of the United States backing same-sex marriage, the media’s apathy is particularly troubling. Outrage has been relegated to vigils around the country and coverage in niche publications–with even obvious outlets like Out Magazine and AfterEllen failing to refocus their editorial content around this tragedy.

But to say this should only be considered a crisis in the LGBT community is incredibly wrong.  What happened to the young women in Texas isn’t an LGBT problem. It’s an American problem.

It’s the biggest fear parents and communities have: anybody harming their children. If we’re furious that the trial of Trayvon Martin’s killer has dragged out into such a stupid, mired spectacle, where is the outrage over two young girls getting shot? Where is the outrage over only one of the victims surviving the attack? Where is the outrage over the local police who have been unable to properly identify, let alone apprehend the gunman?

Where is the outrage over a media that continues to needle only the most materialistic aspects of LGBT culture above its humanistic? Have they hit their quota on stories about young people getting attacked?  Or is it just too much work?

Other news stories receiving more coverage the week ending Friday, June 29, 2012: actress Katie Holmes’s impending divorce from Tom Cruise, pop singer Adele’s pregnancy, and listicles dedicated to the banality of individuals who, misunderstanding the Supreme Court’s ruling on the President’s landmark health care reform act, threatened to move to countries where healthcare was, indeed, socialized. These are easy news stories. Nobody has to expend energy or emotion into developing these stories. We are not asked to really care.

Are journalists that cynical? Are the journalists who have the power to keep the attack on Mary Kristene Chapa and Mollie Olgin featured in the news cycle until the gunman is arrested that cynical? Is there a sense of “Oh, they were asking for it?” that is triggered upon reading that their hometown of Portland, Texas is a small town hemmed in by oil refineries? Is it because there’s neither an easy resolution nor the glamorous appeal of an Amanda Knox-type femme fatale? Have our news organizations become so stony they turn a blind eye to brutalities against LGBT youth? Perhaps the attack on Chapa and Olgin are enjoying less coverage than the tragedy around Tyler Clementi because the latter fits in so squarely into the narrative of Dan Savage’s ‘It Gets Better’ campaign. Have highly visible individuals like Cohen, Cooper, and Maddow remained reticent about something so horrific because there is no gift-wrapped PSA into which it can be shoehorned?  Why does the responsibility fall on their shoulders to amplify the volume on the story around the shooting of Mollie Olgin and Mary Kristene Chapa?

Doesn’t making that assumption implicate me into this cynical ouroboros, as well?

I have no answers, but it’s important we continue asking these questions to guide us closer to any kind of answer. We should only have a yen for justice to be swiftly dispensed and frustration for a news culture that could be better. When you break this story down to its basics, what you get is this: two girls—and at 18 and 19, nobody is a grown-up—were attacked by an unknown man who still remains at large. Their friends, their family, and especially Chapa herself, are now faced with the heavy vastness of that trauma.

In November 2010, a transgendered woman was attacked at a Kohl’s department store in Tennessee. Akasha Adonis and her mother had stopped in Kohl’s the day after Thanksgiving for a Black Friday sale and were attacked by overzealous shoppers. Upon arriving at the crime scene, police officers demonstrated little empathy for Adonis, dismissing her as a “man dressed up as a woman,” a sentiment later echoed by a Kohl’s employee. Responses by both the police and the department store were insufficient, yet it’s a story that sank soon after breaking in the news cycle—perhaps getting lost in the shuffle of Black Friday items.

Akasha Adonis

Akasha Adonis

I can’t help but feel this story didn’t enjoy much coverage because it didn’t fit any news-friendly narrative. Missing in action again were both mainstream news organizations and LGBT-aligned publications. Again, it was a story where it didn’t get better and even in the 21st century, news organizations don’t have the lexicon to properly cover transphobic hate crimes.

Perhaps it was one of the first fractures in my own everybody-loves-everybody idealization of Pride: Why aren’t we watching out for one another?

After hearing about what happened to Chapa and Olgin, I realized it’s not that Pride is redundant, it’s that its ringleaders have lost sight of the mission. They’ve become onerously out-of-touch. Contemporary LGBT culture now fetishizes materialism and aspirational lifestyles; they erroneously idealize tokens like The A-List as a cultural touchstone. This incarnation of LGBT culture is a lot like the Indian culture which I was born into: both are desperately bent on success-driven narratives and have no mechanisms in place to deal with disruptive crises–choosing to sweep ugliness under the rug in favor of selling more turmeric-hued fairy tales even if it means throwing our own kind under a bus for the sake of “the greater good.”

But unlike what Cohen, Cooper, Maddow, and a species of similar personalities have done, our responsibility is to make sure we’re constantly helping those in our community who need it—whether it directly serves our interests or not. If the Stonewall generation’s responsibility was to find solutions and build hope in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the generations that follow need to resolve fundamental quality of life issues affecting younger members of the LGBT community. We don’t need to hold their hands, but nor can we afford to become so vapid and self-absorbed we turn a blind eye to the fact that there are kids whose lives are being ended before they have a chance to come of age and truly embrace their identity.

Our job is to remember, to always remember.

We have to be honest. We have to concede that it’s not necessarily going to get better for everybody. Our responsibility then is to create a culture of self-preservation: to lay down the framework for something less hostile so that future generations can continue creating a culture where it truly gets better—not just for the L, G, and B, but for the T, too. To try to make “It Gets Better” something beyond a YouTube video everyone—from a well-to-do newscaster to a teenager in Texas—can truly identify with. Our responsibility is to expand “It gets better,” into “It might not get better, but baby, you’re going to become stronger, smarter, and beautiful. You’re going to learn never to let anyone take that away from you.” It’s going to be up to someone responsible enough to tell the same thing to a girl like Chapa whose recovery is going to be difficult.

Bullies—whether they’re the kids who repeatedly called me “faggot” in junior high while the administration turned a deaf ear or a gunman who shot down two young girls while the media turns a blind eye—are everywhere. Perhaps it’s that we’re transforming into a culture that wants to make excuses for bullies when we don’t have solutions. After all, internalized homophobia, misogyny, and classism has created divisive subcultures within the LGBT world, where new breeds of bullies—perhaps too comfortable in their microcosms—are beginning to emerge. NYC Pride as we know it today caters increasingly to this stratified community. No longer is it a liberation movement, but a clique-run circuit party.

What I might tell my LGBT brothers and sisters who have the power to impact change but only do so when it serves their interests would be akin to what I might tell my bullies if ever I ran into them now, as grown men: “What is the matter with you?”


Rohin Guha is currently and may forever be hard at work on his first novel, City of Princes. He currently pens the Pop For Skeptics column at Flavorwire. He’s also the author of the short story collection, Relief Work (Birds of Lace, 2010) and serves as the Online Editor at Moonshot Magazine. His literary work has appeared in Union Station Magazine. His non-literary work has appeared in Gawker, New York Magazine, Lambda Literary, The Village Voice, and a chickens’ coop of other publications. More from this author →