By Shannon Bowman
Earlier this week, Terry Coffey from Salem, Oregon made a post on his Facebook that would send the Internet and social media into a frenzy. The post read like this:
As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman, and I hear words like, bravery, heroism, and courage, just thought I’d remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like!
My first thought was frustration that Coffey had missed the point of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. Why does one person’s bravery have to be measured against another’s? Everyone can be a hero. By recognizing someone else’s bravery, it in no way negates the fact that there are many other heroes in the world. Heroes exist in our hearts because we need something that is bigger than us to believe in. We’d all like to think that we are brave, but the fact is, many of us aren’t. So seeing someone, anyone really, who goes against the grain and makes a decision to stand up for themselves and for others is by definition a hero. Aren’t they?
As I read his statement and the emotionally freighted picture Coffey chose to include, I became increasingly irritated…both at Coffey’s narrow-mindedness and at the friend who sent me the post, knowing I was an advocate for LGBT rights. But as I read on, I was glad that I did.
The next day, Coffey posts:
This is the photo I shared yesterday in the spirit of spotlighting “true bravery.”
This photo that accompanied my words, was chosen from a quick image search. Just wanted something to fit my words. I wanted to find out who the photographer was, so I could credit his work.
In an ironic twist, I have discovered that the photo is part of a documentary created by a man who was beaten nearly to death outside of a bar in 2000. After spending 9 days in a coma, suffering severe brain damage and being unable to walk or talk for a year, he chose to try and cope with his pain from the tragic event, by creating a world of stories and characters and photos set in WWII. The image I chose, was one of those created for an upcoming documentary. Why was he nearly beaten to death by 5 strangers?
Because he was a cross-dresser.
I could have chosen one of hundreds of other photos. But I didn’t, I chose this one. Do I think it was an accident? I don’t.
What happened to this man was wrong, cruel, and unforgivable. Hate helps nothing. Love wounds no one. and God heals all. (and irony makes us think).
I tried to reach out to Coffey via Facebook and guess what? I wasn’t alone. His page had over 10K friend requests within a day…several hundred request appearing just minutes after the post. Because of this, Facebook disabled his ability to accept friends or have people message him. I had to wonder if this might have been a good thing for him. As I looked through his feedback from friends and people that did make it through the initial cut before the Facebook lock-down, many of them had an issue with calling Caitlyn Jenner brave and felt it was slap in the face of veterans and service men and women who defended or currently defend our country.
I watched the Jenner interview last month – along with a lot of others – and I don’t recall her ever using the words “brave” or “heroic” to describe her transition. She was made a hero and called brave, because other people needed someone to look up to. They needed to believe that there was someone who could do what they couldn’t or recognized how hard making that transition would be. Transitioning from one gender to another is an incredibly terrifying prospect for many people. All too often, we read about, or hear of teenagers who choose suicide over being who they really are, or how they experience the pain of being turned away from their families, simply for having the courage to be the person they always felt they were. Identifying with, or sympathizing with someone who is experiencing a situation like Jenner’s, and seeing an opportunity to provide hope doesn’t take away from the bravery of others.
Back to the artist who helped change Coffey’s thinking, Mark Hogancamp: Unable to afford therapy, Mark decided to create his own. In his backyard, he built Marwencol, a 1/6th scale World War II-era town that he populated with dolls representing his friends, family, and even his attackers. He used the small dolls and props to redevelop his hand-eye coordination, while he dealt with the psychological trauma from his attack through the town’s many battles and dramas.
Mark started documenting his miniature dramas with his camera. Through Mark’s lens, these were no longer dolls — they were living, breathing characters in an epic WWII story full of violence, jealousy, longing, and revenge. And he (or rather his alter ego, Captain Hogancamp) was the hero.
When Mark’s stunningly realistic photos were discovered and published in an art magazine, his homemade therapy suddenly became “art,” forcing Mark to make a choice between the safety of his fictional town and the real world he’s avoided since his attack.
Shot over the course of four years, Jeff Malmberg’s documentary intertwines the dual realities of Mark Hogancamp to tell the whole story of Marwencol — a surprising tale of love, secrets, pain, and adventure.
So, perhaps we can all just take a moment to remember that bravery takes all kinds of forms. It’s PEOPLE that have the capacity for bravery, regardless of how they show it. Soldiers are people…the LGBT community is made up of people too. The fact remains – one person’s bravery doesn’t diminish anyone else’s.
More about Hogencamp’s work – http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/marwencol/