Dying to be Normal

Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics

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Brett Krutzsch
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Brett Krutzsch’s Dying to Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics challenges the dominant perception of religion and LGBT politics as siloed or antagonistic. It analyzes the deaths of Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, and Tyler Clementi to argue that gay activists strategically presented them as embodiments of the white Christian values of straight people to evoke sympathy for their deaths and further various LGBT causes. Krutzsch demonstrates the effectiveness of these strategies while powerfully deconstructing the continued violence they enacted upon other members of the LGBT community, especially queer and trans people of color. A provocative blend of religion studies, LGBT studies, and media studies, Dying to Be Normal provides an expansive overview of the relationship between LGBT activists and religious discourses in America.

The introduction sets up Krutzsch’s argument and an historic overview of the relationship between LGBT activism and religion in America. The author illustrates how LGBT activists used religious rhetoric to help gay Americans assimilate: “through the process of commemoration, secular gay activists deployed Protestant Christian ideals to present gays as similar to upstanding heterosexuals and, therefore, as deserving of equal rights” (2). He argues  his focus on religion as a tool for gay assimilation intervenes in the broader field of LGBT studies.

Chapter 1 maps the memorializing of Milk, a San Francisco politician. Krutzsch argues that Milk’s commemoration relied upon the creation of a martyr figure. Gay activists downplayed both Milk’s polyamorous relationships and his Jewishness to make him a palatable martyr figure for straight white Christian audiences. Additionally, activists used Milk’s murder to garner sympathy for a gay man “who heterosexuals might consider respectable since his death was unconnected to a sexually transmitted virus” (30). The author highlights the “Saint Harvey” exhibit at the GLBT History Museum, which displayed the suit Milk wore when he was assassinated in the position of Jesus on the cross. Krutzsch concludes that Harvey Milk “was born again as a Christianized martyr for the national gay rights movement” (45).

In chapter 2, Krutzsch ties Shepard’s murder to Christ’s crucifixion and the notion of a “sacrificial death” (49). Presenting Shepard’s death as a “modern-day crucifixion” (52), activists and media outlets played on the graphic details of his murder to link Shepard to Christ as an outcast and tortured man. The media emphasized Shepard’s fragility and child-like innocence along with his heavy church involvement. Building off of this, activists used the rhetoric of a redemptive death to cast Shepard as a martyr that helped “mark a dividing line that separates those who support what the martyr, theoretically, died to uphold, and those who did not” (65). The highly successful play The Laramie Project cemented Shepard-as-martyr through its use of Christian images as an anchor to present gays as upstanding human beings.

The third chapter contextualizes Clementi’s suicide within the growing tolerance for “gender-conforming, white gays” (87) and traces the success of the It Gets Better Project as a result of Clementi’s suicide. Activists and media framed Clementi as a vulnerable young gay man who was the victim of anti-gay bullying. Clementi embodied white Protestant ideals for middle-class Americans, which highlighted the teen bullying epidemic and the larger culture of Christian homophobia that perpetuated gay teen suicide. Krutzsch argues that the success of It Gets Better played into gay white assimilationist visions of progress that “share a strong resemblance to Protestant evangelical conversion narratives” (104). It asserted that LGBT people will experience a better life through monogamous couplings and the creation of nuclear families, which isolates and demonizes the majority of queer people who do not fit these ideals.

In the fourth chapter, Krutzsch critiques these strategies’ marginalization of gender-variant people and queer and trans people of color. By discussing the stories and film depictions of Brandon Teena, F.C. Martinez, and a group of Black lesbians attacked in New York City known as the “New Jersey Four,” Krutzsch aims “to bring attention to the unique vulnerabilities of gender-variant individuals and queer people of color” (120). All of these cases involve people who defied the identity norms established in the previous chapters: Teena’s transgender identity, Martinez’s Native American gender-variant identity, and the New Jersey Four’s Black lesbian identities. Each film covering their stories exposes the intersectional oppressions they faced, and Krutzsch emphasizes that who gets represented in commemoration and memorialization reflects whose life is assigned value in our country.

The epilogue moves forward to the Pulse Nightclub Massacre, and Krutzsch begins by detailing the shooting and its subsequent politicization. He then highlights the nonnormative forms of commemoration LGBT communities created in the shooting’s wake, which were “queer styles of memorialization . . . acts of public mourning that rejected the ideals of the dominant heterosexual culture” (155). The author powerfully concludes his book by calling for a greater focus on the activism, lives, and non-martyr deaths of queer and trans people of color. He advocates for an intersectional historicizing of queer people that highlights structural oppression rather than martyrdom. With this, he ends the book by troubling the very concept of normality that many gay activists fought for, “Normal is not freedom” (166).

Readers will find Krutzsch’s book a thought-provoking, accessible, and expansive read. Where the author excels is his succinct yet full engagement with a broad and complex history of LGBT violence in America. The figures (Milk, Shepard, Clementi, Teena, Martinez, and the New Jersey Four) he chooses are multifaceted and offer rich opportunity for revision of prior media narratives. Krutzsch also lays out compelling and integral stakes for his scholarship, offering a much-needed call to arms for a greater emphasis on queer and trans people of color’s stories and political strategies.

At moments, Krutzsch moves from the emphasis on religious rhetoric to a broader historicizing, particularly in the fourth chapter and epilogue. Having said this, Dying to Be Normal is a powerhouse text that I would highly recommend to scholars interested in queer theory, LGBT studies, or religion studies. The book is additionally helpful for scholars of media or activist history, as the author provides rich historic recollections of the media narratives and activist responses surrounding these figures.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jimmy Hamill is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brett Krutzsch is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Haverford College.


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