“Dying to Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics” by Brett Krutzsch— Religion and Secular Activism

Krutzsch, Brett. “Dying to Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics”,  Oxford University Press, 2019.

Religion and Secular Activism

Amos Lassen

Brett Krutzsch’s “Dying to Be Normal” is the first book to show how memorialization influenced national debates over LGBT rights. It demonstrates how religion shaped secular gay activism and the process of gay assimilation in the United States and it addresses the activism surrounding Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, Tyler Clementi, Brandon Teena, the It Gets Better Project, the Pulse Nightclub Massacre, and more

Krutzsch’s analysis demonstrates the tactics and the consequences of assimilationist gay politics and these include “veneration of white, cisgender gay men through sanitized, semi-fictionalized, and Christianized versions of their lives that erase their own realities and those of their communities.” We are reminded that there have always been other options, and we are challenged to reject assimilationist tactics that are ultimately rooted in exclusion.”

We see how religious and secular narratives work in history, often in unexpected ways in order to make some gays appear normal, “a process that all too often transubstantiates complicated queer lives into suitable Christian narratives, while leaving others, especially queer people of color, outside the circuit of memory.” Krutzsch reveals how we talk about religion and sexuality in American politics.”  We see here that martyrdom and memorialization are central to gay activism in the United States. Even though religiosity and sexuality are often thought to be opposing forces, the book shows that religion and sex are powerfully enmeshed with each other. Christian nationalism and Protestant secularism might form today’s parameters of political possibility, but Krutzsch provides alternative analysis that opens toward a diverse sexual democracy.

On October 14, 1998, more than five thousand people gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to mourn the death of Matthew Shepard, had been murdered in Wyoming eight days earlier. Politicians and celebrities addressed the crowd and the televised national audience to share their grief with the country. Before this there we had never had a gay citizen’s murder to bring about such tremendous outrage or concern from straight Americans. 
In this book Brett Krutzsch argues that gay activists memorialized people like Shepard as part of a political strategy to present gays as similar to the country’s dominant class of white, straight Christians. Through an examination of publicly mourned gay deaths, Krutzsch goes against the common perception that LGBT politics and religion have been oppositional and reveals how gay activists have used religion to strengthen the argument that gays are essentially the same as straights, and therefore they deserve equal rights. 

Krutzsch’s analysis also looks to the  memorialization of Harvey Milk, Tyler Clementi, Brandon Teena, and F. C. Martinez, and to campaigns like the It Gets Better Project, and national tragedies like the Pulse nightclub shooting to illustrate how activists have used prominent deaths to win acceptance, influence political debates over LGBT rights, and encourage assimilation. We see  how, in the fight for greater social inclusion, activists relied on Christian values and rhetoric to portray gays as upstanding Americans. Krutzsch demonstrates that gay activists reinforced a white Protestant vision of acceptable American citizenship that often excluded people of color, gender-variant individuals, non-Christians, and those who did not hold to Protestant Christianity’s sexual standards.

Table of Contents:

List of illustrations

Introduction: Memorialization, Gay Assimilation, and American Religion
Chapter One: The “Gay M.L.K.”: Harvey Milk
Chapter Two: The “Crucifixion” of “Anyone’s Gay Son”: Matthew Shepard
Chapter Three: The “Epidemic of Bullying and Gay Teen Suicides”: Tyler Clementi and It Gets Better
Chapter Four: “The Place Where Two Discriminations Meet”: Race, Gender, and the Threat of Violence
Epilogue: The Pulse Nightclub Massacre and the Queer Potential of Memorialization

Selected Bibliography

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