“Re-Closeting,” Life & Death: A Reading for the Wichita YAF Conference, and Other Friends

118 Days overI’ve been reading the book, “118 Days,” published by Christian Peace Teams, about the kidnapping of four CPTers in Baghdad in November 2005. One of the four, Quaker (and my friend) Tom Fox, was murdered in early March of 2006; the other three were rescued on March 23, 2006 by British commandos.

There is important material here for reflection, for all of us, and especially by Young Adult Friends who are weighing how to uphold and carry on the tradition they are inheriting. What was highlighted by the extremity of the situation described here, has its echoes in more mundane situations where silence and invisibility are are demanded, but without similar justification.

It’s always hard to read about Tom Fox’s death, and let me never forget him and his sacrifice. That said, I want to focus here on someone else. In this reading, two chapters in the book leaped out. They were about the Canadian captive, Jim Loney, who’s gay, and what his being gay meant in this life and death saga.

What’s clear now is that if Tom Fox had not been killed, Loney’s plight and its ramifications would have been the big story of this case. And Like Tom’s, Jim’s story transcends the specifics of his kidnapping.

The two chapters which deal with this story are by Dan Hunt, who had been Jim’s partner for more than ten years in 2005; and by William Payne, one of their gay friends. Payne is part of a community of LGBTs and their supporters, centered in Toronto, among whom Jim and Dan lived. The couple, like the community generally, had been publicly out for years.

Dan Hunt, Jim Loney's partner & spouse
Dan Hunt, Jim Loney’s partner & spouse

The impact of these chapters grows out of the gruesomely undeniable fact that by 2005 in Iraq, gays were being hunted down and murdered, brutally and with impunity. (They still are.) Many reports have documented this ongoing reign of terror, which is one of many tragic outcomes of the US invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

A gay Iraqi exile, Ali Hili, who launched the website Iraqi LGBT said of this:

“Homosexuality was generally tolerated under Saddam. There certainly was no danger of gay people being assassinated in the street by police. Since his overthrow, the violent persecution of gays and lesbians is commonplace. Life in Iraq now is hell for all LGBT people; no one can be openly gay and alive.”

corpses of alleged homosexuals, Baghdad
Corpses of alleged homosexuals in Baghdad; many more similar photos are on the web

 That’s what was happening in November 2005, three years into the US occupation. So a few days after the kidnapping, when a Toronto TV reporter came knocking at the door where Jim and Dan lived, saying, “I’m looking for Jim Loney’s partner,” a housemate did not mince words:

“’If you mention in your story that Jim might be gay, whether he is or not, you’ll get him killed.’ It was time to be blunt,” Payne writes, “and it worked.”

The reporter protested, no doubt truthfully, that neither she nor her employers were homophobic. And it was no secret in Toronto that Jim and Dan were a same sex couple. But that wasn’t the point; and the reporter soon backed off. That was only a beginning. To make the silence about Jim and Dan stick, Payne notes, “our collective return to the closet began.”

At first, Dan Hunt writes,

“my public disappearance seemed like an inconsequential strategic decision, one that would be easy to bear. I was responding to homophobia that was far away, in Iraq. It wasn’t real. How quickly that changed.”

An essentially false identity had to be constructed and then maintained:

“Publicly, Jim became known as an upstanding Christian boy and community-worker from a typical, small-town all-Canadian nuclear family. It was the only picture of him that was safe to portray. I, and everyone connected to me, including the community Jim and I began with William [Payne] in 1990, had to be erased if Jim was to have any chance of surviving.”

The erasing was done in very concrete ways. Needing a photo of Jim for CPT to give the media, they settled on one taken the night before Jim left for Baghdad. “It was my favorite photo from that night,” a friend recalled, Jim with his arm around Dan’s shoulder, both smiling, with Jim’s head tilted toward Dan’s head.”

But Dan had to go. He was literally cut from the photo. A CPT staffer who was there said,

“The defining moment for me as a queer woman during the crisis was when Dan’s image was cut out of that loving photo . . . . I watched the process of photo editing from my desk, and cried quietly. In the days that followed I worked ferociously to protect Dan, and Jim’s relationship, from an already knowledgeable media. At the same time, my active role in making Dan invisible broke my heart.”

Another gay man who was present when the photo was taken said he

“found something in the photo to hold onto. ‘I noticed . . .a little red triangle in the bottom right corner, Dan’s shirt. I thought, ‘There’s Dan. You’re silent, you’re invisible, but there’s the visibility.’ It was the weirdest thing. I don’t know why but it comforted me to know that even though Dan was cut out of the picture – at least to the few who knew—that little bit of red shirt was actually Dan. That was beautiful to me.”

Dan Hunt's red sweater
The photo at left was released to the media and published around the world.

To be effective, this “re-closeting” and becoming invisible extended well beyond Jim and Dan.

“For the sake of Jim’s safety, those who love him took great pains to reconstruct the closet walls he had so painstakingly torn down a decade ago . . .” Payne wrote. “Reversing years of closet dismantling is hard to do, but we were amazingly successful.

“Gay, lesbian and bisexual people used the gifts of their lives to do whatever could be done in a situation where there was very little to do. We are used to surviving despite the closet. Though it’s not a place we want to go, we know how to craftily navigate the waters of deception when we need to protect life and limb, and we did it again for four months.”

While necessary, this invisibility was a destructive burden.

“The media is very powerful,” Dan wrote. “It shapes the way we view the world and the way we experience ourselves in it. Though I knew a myth was being created, it was difficult not to let the myth have the power of truth. Media coverage of the kidnapping was so intense that not being included in it began to annihilate me — especially because my behind-the-scenes experiences often paralleled my public disappearance. . . .
When I went downtown for the vigil following Tom [Fox’s] death, I watched from a distance of a hundred yards until the vigil was well under way. The media were there and so were my friends. I did not want them to pay undue attention to me in front of the media. The myth became my reality over and over. I could not exist, therefore I did not exist.”

But then it seemed to be over.

“In the end,” Dan Hunt wrote, “Jim came home to all of us who love him.”

Dan was there to greet him at the Toronto airport, and walked with him, finally, to face the press openly and together.

But there was a bittersweet tinge to the moment:

“I sometimes wonder,” Dan wrote, “if the diminishment and debasement I endured would have been washed away in a single moment, had Jim and I held hands, walking towards the thousand cameras, when he arrived home at the airport, or if we’d embraced in front of everyone. But we didn’t. It would have been unnatural for us. Our own coming out hadn’t brought us that far. The terrible violence of being silenced was more dominant than the freedom we had thus far acquired.

‘Silence equals death.’ It was the rallying cry of the queer community as it faced the AIDS crisis. It’s a statement of truth. Non-recognition, disappearance, invisibility, are violence that can eradicate one’s very being.”

For William Payne, his chapter of “118 Days”

“is about queerness and about how the sexual orientation of one of the four CPTers kidnapped in Iraq must be seen as an intrinsic, even central part of the story.” Indeed, “. . .the narrative of the hostage-taking is incomplete without an account of how homophobia played a leading role in this drama.”

And in some concrete ways, the ordeal was not over. Both Payne and Dan Hunt report that along with the jubilation following Jim’s return home, there was a homophobic backlash.

This negative report is underlined by the note, “Why We Are Self-Publishing,” at the front of the book: First one, and then a second church-related publishing house agreed to print this book for CPT, but both later demanded that sections about Jim and Dan be deleted. More silence, more invisibility. When CPT refused, the publishers dropped the project.

“Sadly,” the CPT editors conclude, “what neither publisher seems to recognize is that their editing requirements are part of the same system of homophobia that threatened Jim’s life while he was in captivity, and subsequently condemned Dan to invisibility.”

 My hat is off to CPT for standing up to this renewed call to re-closeting and silencing. It is an example that applies to issues beyond gender, and I hope others will remember and live up to it, especially Friends who are headed to Wichita this weekend.

Iraq Stop Killing Gays Protest

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