(Stephen V. Sprinkle. Unfinished Lives: Reviving the Memories of LGBTQ Hate Crimes Victims. Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2011. 299 pages.)
Stephen Sprinkle has published a much-needed book based on his work as director of the Unfinished Lives Project. The Unfinished Lives website has long been on the frontline of documenting, honoring, and remembering hate crime victims in the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) communities. This book grows out of that work, and is a labor of love based on meticulous research and extensive interviews. Sprinkle is also on the faculty of Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas — the first openly gay scholar to be tenured in the school’s history — so his work also has a vital theological component, which is important given how religion has so frequently been used to justify hate crimes against LGBTQ victims. Indeed, Sprinkle is a well-known and gifted preacher, and he lends his considerable gifts both to eulogize the dead and to galvanize support for a more just, equal, and hopeful future for all people regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender presentation.
In the foreword, Harry Knox, the director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program, calls Unfinished Lives, “the first book length work I am aware of that offers [a ready reference] on diverse victims of hate murders across the spectrum of queer identities, from all walks of life and from all parts of the country” (ix). Although these stories are difficult to hear, they are crucially important to demonstrate the need for legislation such as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law in 2009 by President Obama. When the stories of hate crimes victims are forgotten, the chances of future hate crimes increases precipitously. Sprinkle’s book challenges us to remember and to speak out for a culture that celebrates diversity.
Sprinkle begins with the story of Matthew Shepherd, but — as is the case with each of the fourteen stories in the book — the book’s greatest strength lies in the details you have not heard before that Sprinkle has uncovered through personal visits to the crime scenes and new interviews with those who knew the victims. And beyond Matthew Shepherd, many of the other victims’ names and stories are tragically unfamiliar to the general public, increasing the importance of books such as this one.
Chapter Two, titled “God Slain,” tells the story of Kenneth L. Cummings, Jr., and is perhaps the book’s most searing indictment of the irresponsible and hateful anti-LGBTQ theology that has undergirded so many hate crimes. Sprinkle rightly calls such theology “monstrous…a deadly ideology masquerading as biblical truth” (25). Indeed, a perverse interpretation of obscure scripture passages motivated Ken’s killer, Terry Mark Mangum: “After immersing himself in toxic anti-gay teaching for thousands of hours, and calling himself by turns, ‘Elijah’ and ‘Melchzedek,’ Mangum attacked Cummings in his own home. ‘Sexual perversion is the worst sin,’ he said. ‘I planned on sending him to hell'” (23). He tortured Kenneth for hours, then “immolate[d] the body as a burnt offering to God” (36). Moving toward the chapter’s conclusion, Sprinkle writes:
Who bears the blame for Ken Cummings Jr.’s murder? Magnum, of course. But there is a whole phalanx of unindicted religious leaders who fed the hate machine that stole away the joy of Ken’s religion long before Mangum took up the calling to kill. Pope Benedict XVI, Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham, W.A. Criswell, Fred Phelps, Rick Warren, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlafley, James Dobson, Oral Roberts, Bishop Eddie Long, Anita Bryant, Franklin Graham, Francis Shaeffer, John Hagee, Rod Parsley, Jimmy Swaggart — all the mouthpieces of intolerance should share the indictment for this, or any hate crime murder, if not the sentence for it…. Ken Cummings’s slaying was not simply a hate crime murder case. It was a failure of Christian theology. (43)
Sprinkle also tells part of his own story that includes some harrowing experiences being in the closet as a parish minister in North Carolina (xxvi); hence, some of the most compelling stories are of those victims from similar rural settings in the south such as the gifted lesbian carpenter Talana Quay Kreeger from Wilmington, North Carolina or the “Southern Gothic” tale of Billy Jack Gaither from Sylacauga, Alabama. Sprinkle deftly pierces the layers of complicated relationships surrounding LGBTQ folk in small Southern towns.
The book also does not operate from an exclusively Christian perspective. Chapter Five tells of Fred C. Martinez, Jr., who was a member of the Navajo tribe and a “Two-Spirit” person, who “harmonized male and female characteristics within themselves” (93). Additionally, Chapter Ten, “Dancing with Shiva,” recounts the story of Satendar Singh, a young gay Sikh.
In tracing the landmark crimes that helped embolden advocacy for equality, the book also documents the story of Charles O. Howard, “the first fully recognized hate crime murder of a gay person.” As Sprinkle says, “before there was Matthew Shepard, there was Charlie” (191). Also, the murder of Petty Officer Allen R. Schindler, Jr. by two of his shipmates for being gay was an important catalyst for the recent repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (263).
The final chapter tells the stories of Adolphus Simmons, Lawrence Fobes “Larry” King, and Simmie Lewis “Beyonce” Williams, Jr.: “Three youths — two of them boys and one of them barely an adult — were savagely murdered in the first two months of 2008 because they presented femininely and refused to conform to common gender stereotypes” (269). These killings bring to mind the increasingly well known It Gets Better Project, which seeks to counsel and encourage LGBTQ youth who are contemplating suicide after being harassed for their sexuality or gender expression. Sprinkle’s book Unfinished Lives: Reviving the Memories of LGBTQ Hate Crimes Victims and the Unfinished Lives Project as a whole remind us that we must not only tell our young people that “It gets better,” but also we must commit ourselves to the hard work of building a world that is better for all people.