When I was in college, I walked alone.
Okay, not really, but I did go for a walk just about every night. On my own. In the dark.
This wasn’t a big deal to me. The streets were well lit, for the most part, and it seemed safer walking at night in the suburbs than in the woods near my parents’ house. For one thing, I was far less likely to run into a mountain lion.
Others saw things differently.
One of my friends insisted that I send her a text after every time I visited her after dark, so that she’d know I walked back across campus alright. Every now and then, the adviser to our school’s LGBT group would encourage us to practice the buddy system. Once, a member of our group admitted that he didn’t feel safe walking around the city on his own.
I’ve written about queer issues before, which is weird, because I honestly don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my life through that lens. But every now and then, I’ll see something—or I’ll hear something—and it’ll resonate.
I’ll hear it, and I stop for a moment. I ponder.
And then I write.
Last month, Brandi Carlile released her fifth studio album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, the best flarking album I’ve heard since 2012. There is not a single song on this album that I don’t like—and that’s sayin’ something.
Admittedly, I’m biased: Carlile’s style fits perfectly in the middle of the Venn diagram of my musical interests. It’s a little bit country,* a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, with soaring vocals, booming instruments, and lyrics you can sink your teeth in.
It’s pretty great.
I could easily do a track-by-track review of The Firewatcher’s Daughter, listing every single reason why you should be listening to this album. But I’m not gonna do that. For one thing, I don’t have the time.
But I do want to talk about one song.
At the very end of the album, after all the ups and downs, the head-boppin’ rockabilly sing-along tracks and the quieter, more introspective love songs, Carlile closes with a cover of the Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City.”
This song hits me hard every time.
I can’t speak for other queer folk—as usual, I can only speak for myself—but man, oh, man, does this resonate.
I started this post with an anecdote about how I used to walk alone at night. I still do, sometimes, but not often. See, I’ve moved a few times since then. I don’t know my new neighborhood all that well.
When I walked alone at night in college, I’d be lying if I said I was afraid. Likewise, if I’m walking alone in the city, I may stop for a second to pull the rainbow bracelet off my wrist, but it’s not because of fear—not exactly.
See, there’s this little voice in the back of my mind, and every now and then, that little voice calls out, “Hey! Unknown territory. Better be careful.”
‘Cause something could happen.
I’m sure some of you have already figured out where this is going. If not, look down about a paragraph. You probably won’t be surprised.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered. He was found tied to a fence post, pistol-whipped, his brain stem crushed, his shoes missing. He died a few hours later.
Now, much has been written about Matthew Shepard. Time passes. Passion fades. Memories blur. Recent articles have questioned whether Matthew’s killers were truly motivated by hate, or whether they acted out of some other motive.
In a way, it doesn’t matter.
Regardless of why it happened, Matthew Shepard’s murder caused a wave of outrage, calls for tolerance, and debate about the safety of queer folk in America. Even ten years later, as I was slowly starting to peek out of the closet, the LGBT community continued to talk about Matthew Shepard.
“That could’ve been me,” I thought. That could still be me.
Now, settle down, kids, I’m gonna put on my lit major hat for a moment and pull out another familiar LGBT-themed story. Again, you probably know where this is going.
Told you. (Image © Focus Features, 2005)
The tragedy of Brokeback Mountain isn’t that Jack Twist dies. It’s not a Romeo & Juliet story—well, it is, actually, but not in the way that most people think. See, Romeo and Juliet didn’t die of the inexorable forces of society. They didn’t die because of fate. They died because of their choices.
Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy because its characters chose to end it that way.
Throughout the short story, Jack asks Ennis to start a new life with him. The two of them And every time, Ennis says no. When Ennis was young, he was told that if two men were to ever shack up together, they’d be beaten to death by a tire iron. For Ennis, being “a queer” can only end in death.
After years of unsatisfactory rendezvous and a falling out that both men knew was coming, Ennis gets the news that Jack Twist is dead. And the tragedy is, because he never took Jack up on that offer, because he let the two of them drift apart, Ennis will never know the truth of what happened to Jack.**
In Ennis’s mind, it was the tire iron.
I read Brokeback Mountain for the first time back in 2009, shortly before I came out. I knew I was gay, though I didn’t want to admit it, and this story helped me figure out why.
I was scared.
I got over it. Eventually. Most of the time.
I walk the city streets more or less without fear, but every now and then, that little voice in the back of my mind reminds me to be cautious. Because if it happened to Matthew Shepard and Jack Twist, if it’s happened to other queer and trans* folk in my area, there’s a tiny chance it could happen to me.
It’s an anxiety that I don’t think is shared by most straight, white, cisgendered folk—not straight white men, anyway, I’m guessing.
“If I get murdered in the city,” sings Carlile, and it’s an anxiety that feels real, even if it’s remote. It’s something we have to think about. We can’t control that little voice in the back of our minds.
For the most part, Carlile sings the song exactly as it was written.*** Except for one line:
Make sure my wife knows that I loved her
Make sure my daughter knows the same
And always remember there’s nothing worth sharing
Like the love that lets us share our name
Brandi Carlile is married. She has a wife. And they have a daughter. More than anything else, that’s the line that gets me. That’s the line that resonates.
“Murder in the City” © The Avett Brothers, 2008. Ramseur Records. Video © Brandi Carlile, Oct. 8, 2014.
The Firewatcher’s Daughter © Brandi Carlile Band, 2015. ATO Records.
“Brokeback Mountain” in Close Range: Wyoming Stories © Annie Proulx, 1999. Scribner. Originally published in The New Yorker: Oct. 13, 1997.
*By “country,” I mean the ol’-timey Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn brand of country, not that bro-country stuff comin’ out of Nashville these days.
**Proulx’s text, and to an extent Ang Lee’s movie as well, is purposefully ambiguous on this point. We, the readers, never know which version of Jack’s death is true.
***By a straight, white, cisgendered man, oddly enough.‡
‡As far as I know.