Invisibility in a Public Death

I’m mourning the loss of Clarksdale mayoral candidate Marco McMillian, who at 34 was murdered, his body beaten, dragged, set on fire and left in a levee in Northeast Mississippi.  From most reports McMillian seemed to be an amazing man, dedicated to his community and well decorated for his contributions.  McMillian was openly gay and his candidacy was supported by the Victory Fund, an organization that provides political support and fundraising capacity to out lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) candidates.  Having organized LGBTQ youth in Mississippi since 2008, I’m more used to closeted politicians that the LGBTQ community knows about but the public doesn’t, or those who are outed in less-than-desirable ways.

I couldn’t help but to think back to the death of “Dylan” the summer I arrived in Mississippi.  The details, even at the time, were blurry. Dylan was a mainstay at one of the only gay-straight alliance (GSA) groups in the state at the time. I met up with him a few times, and he met my parents when they came to visit and help with the first LGBTQ youth conference in the state that I was a part of organizing.  He wore tight jeans, had tons of piercings, and had a furry backpack he carried around.  He was out loud and proud in an environment where that wasn’t too common or accepted.  I remember him fondly.

Having recently moved to the state, I was still building networks and forming relationships with the LGBTQ community, and word got back to me from a colleague that Dylan was dead.  She was hearing that he had been killed for being perceived as too flamboyantly gay after a confrontation in a fast food drive-thru.  It was a hate crime, she thought, and what could we do?  Could we get the security tapes from the fast food chain?  Did I know anyone at the FBI?  I was told that Dylan crawled to his death, taking refuge at a gay bar nearby and dying shortly after the incident. I was in charge, somehow, of helping the youth I worked with process what they were hearing.  I knew even then that we may never get the full truth.

I felt helpless and felt an overwhelming sadness.  I pulled the levers I knew how to pull, calling attorneys that had worked in LGBTQ issues and reaching out to community members who knew law enforcement officials.  The family didn’t think there was any malice involved in Dylan’s death.  The trail ended there.  The family wasn’t demanding justice.  They wanted to move on, not talk about it any more, and wanted “trouble makers” like me and my colleagues to let well enough alone.

My colleague attended the funeral, and to her horror it wasn’t Dylan that they were remembering and burying.  His family, embarrassed by Dylan being gay and flamboyant, had dyed his hair back to its natural color, removed his piercings, and put him in a suit he never would have worn.  She didn’t recognize him in the casket, and the funeral wasn’t a celebration of his life at all.  Worse yet, the minister preached about sins and the need to repent.  My colleague was scarred.  We still remember Dylan and the funeral was a profound aggression on who Dylan was.  I told my parents that Dylan was dead and my father, still “evolving” in his understanding of LGBTQ issues, wept. Families can be a support or a profound complication and source of pain for LGBTQ people.  While the words aren’t hateful or shaming, there does seem to be a confusing amount of denial about McMillian’s sexual orientation from his family.  His mother stated that only “friends and family” knew McMillian was gay, which seems improbable given that he was publicly backed by the Victory Fund.  I’ve found that family acceptance is on a spectrum, and even for publicly out members of the community denial on behalf of their family and friends is common.

At the time we couldn’t get any law enforcement attention on Dylan’s death, and given the slow response of the FBI to the very public death of McMillian I’m not surprised that Dylan’s death wasn’t registering.  In a state like Mississippi, which claims to be pro-life, it’s a sad statement to realize that some lives matter more than others.  Mississippi’s governor, Phil Bryant, thinks that people who disagree with him about abortion are siding with Satan (no, really) so I can only imagine what he thinks of the dignity and worth of LGBTQ people.

We need a fair and unbiased investigation into the circumstances of McMillian’s murder.  Mississippi has shown that it can’t be trusted to prevent heinous acts of violence against minorities, nor to investigate such acts with due diligence.  Law enforcement, families, and an overarching system of laws that disparage and harm LGBTQ people and their families combine to produce an environment where a fair investigation may not be possible. According to latest reports, the FBI is “monitoring” the situation but is not investigating McMillian’s death.  Given Mississippi’s history, and given that sources like GLSEN report that Mississippi is ranked last in supporting LGBTQ youth, federal resources are needed.

I, too, picture the Good Ole’ Boy sheriff who says something out of a movie like “we don’t see no hate crime here.” The irony is that the sheriff cannot see a hate crime based on sexual orientation (or gender identity for that matter) according to state law.  Mississippi is one of 15 states in the country that does not include sexual orientation or gender identity in its hate crimes statute.  Four of these states are in the South.

The lack of legal protections, compounded by a society that sees LGBTQ people as morally errant, has rendered McMillian invisible in his own backyard, even as his murder is publicized around the world.