Gordon Ray Church:
A Litany of Horror,
A Prayer for Peace
On the Day of the Dead, 2008
Warning: the following paragraph contains graphic details of sexual violence.
Twenty years ago, on November 21, 1988, Gordon Ray Church, a 28-year-old Southern Utah University theater student – and Gay Mormon man, was at a convenience store in Cedar City, Utah, where he met Michael Anthony Archuleta and Lance Conway Wood. The two young men asked him for a ride north to Salt Lake City. Church agreed and they got as far as a remote location in Millard County, where they turned off the freeway for “a pit stop.” Safely out of public view, Archuleta, a Catholic, and Wood, a Mormon Eagle Scout (although both with police records), attacked Church because of his effeminate behavior and perceived homosexuality. (The two young men claim Gordon tried to initiate a sexual encounter with them and they responded with the infamous "Gay panic" defense.) Beating him senseless, they stripped Gordon of his clothes, forced him to fellate both of them, and attached jumper cables to his testicles, using the car battery to shock him repeatedly. At some point in the attack, they locked him in his own car trunk and drove to the even more remote Dog Canyon. There they raped him with a tire iron – piercing several of his internal organs, beat him with a car jack as he begged for mercy, and finally killed him after more than an hour of torture by “playing golf” with his head as he lay writhing naked in the dirt. The young men then buried his mangled body in a shallow grave. Two years later in court, in describing the horrendous injuries inflicted upon Gordon’s body, it took the reporting coroner two and a half hours of medical testimony.
Skeleton Mosaic by Gianlorenzo Bernini, circa 1650
Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome
I was in Salt Lake City at the time this happened, getting ready for Thanksgiving, when underground news of Gordon’s murder hit the Gay community. Although I did not know Gordon, two of my closest friends did and they were in utter shock. His murder was briefly reported in the papers, but not as a hate crime, and certainly not as a brutal anti-Gay torture spree. The papers hinted that it was sex-related but the LDS judge over the case placed a gag order on it and sealed all the court documents from the media and the public, mainly because of the prominence of the two local LDS families involved. Still we managed to circulate details of Gordon’s torture and murder among the Gay community, where we privately mourned the loss of one of our own. The heinous nature of a hate crime is that the crime is committed against one member of a particular group, who represents everyone in that group – be it Asians, Gays, Blacks, Mormons, women, Jewish people, etc. For several weeks, I remember walking around Salt Lake City in a daze: Christmas carols in the malls, Temple Square alit, the Messiah sing-along, the gingerbread Victorians of the Avenues and Marmalade district all lit up; and it was all but ashes in my mouth, compared to the horror of realizing, “There but by the Grace of God go I.” The heart-wrenching vulnerability and visual flashes of the violence committed upon Gordon’s body would crash into my head and overwhelm me at any moment and I would break down crying at the thought that it could have just as easily been me.
Out of that fear, despair, disbelief, and anger generated by Gordon’s murder came at last resolve. I had been through enough pain, fear, and spiritual torture in my life and I needed them to stop. I vowed to live my life out loud, publicly, courageously, to help prevent any such further horrors. Since then, I have dedicated my life to creating a world where every LGBT person is at peace and safe from psychological, spiritual, and physical violence. It took another ten years, when a young Gay student named Matthew Shepard, was strung up on a fence and left to die outside of Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, before the world finally started to see just how evil homophobia truly is.
Gordon, I want you to know that after twenty years, my mantra remains:
Never forget. Never again.