Ryan Quinn’s The Fall begins with an inscription: “For the courageous. It gets better.”
For the three protagonists, Haile, Ian, and Casey, that is the hope. When we meet them at the beginning of their senior year, they are struggling: musically-gifted Haile is a transfer student trying to escape past disappointment, Ian is gay and in the closet, and Casey is uncertain of his future outside of football.
Haile, Ian, and Casey tell their stories in alternating, first-person segments, each portion beginning with somewhat distracting musical references, screenplay excerpts, or Facebook status updates depending on the character in the spotlight. It’s an interesting story of personal development. My primary criticism is that I felt that Quinn glosses over Haile’s transformation, leaving some of her actions largely unexplained. For example, how is it that Haile became so interested in the person she ends up dating by the end of the novel? Did a light bulb suddenly go off? This shift in her affections felt unrealistically abrupt and how she decided to display her interest is particularly puzzling. I don’t quite “get” Haile.
Ian comes across as the most clearly developed character, and it is his initial insecurity and gradual personal development that are the most poignant in the novel. The inscription, “For the courageous. It gets better,” perhaps relates the most to Ian’s journey and reminds me of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project. Ian’s coming out happens in the context of a homophobic football culture on a college campus where memories of a hate crime against a gay student who later commits suicide are still fresh.
The students of this fictional university hail from all over the United States, but it feels entirely realistic to me that a hate crime targeting a gay young man would take place at a school in rural Pennsylvania. I am ashamed to admit that my home state is far from tolerant of LGBT rights and we have the laws (or lack thereof) to prove it. For instance, like the inadequate federal anti-discrimination law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), Pennsylvania’s primary anti-discrimination law, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, does not explicitly cover sexual orientation or gender identity, though some of our local anti-discrimination ordinances are better. Furthermore, less than a decade ago, in an embarrassing attempt at impact litigation, twelve Pennsylvania state legislators and a company called Creative Pultrusions (a name that makes me snicker) sued two men in a committed relationship because, in what I presume was a symbolic act, they tried to get married. Pennsylvania is also a state, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified, where 34 hate groups were active in 2011.*
The Pennsylvania in the background of The Fall is thus a place I recognize, not that hate crimes are confined to one state in our nation. Collecting data from sixteen states, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) found a decrease in the overall reports of hate crimes targeting LGBTQH (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected) individuals, but it also found an increase in the severity of crimes. NCAVP identified 30 anti-LGBTHQ murders in 2011, an 11% increase over the year before and likely an undercount due to difficulties identifying whether victims were LGBTQH.
Similarly, suicides of LGBT youth, often connected to bullying and discrimination, remain a problem across the country. High profile examples include Billy Lucas and Tyler Clementi, both of whom were targets of anti-gay bullying. Both committed suicide before anyone could convince them “that, yes, it does indeed get better.”
At the federal level, the law has changed in recent years to be more responsive to discrimination against people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. Importantly, in 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA), named after two victims of hate crimes. This law expanded federal hate crime law to include “violence motivated by the… gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim.” Pub. L. No. 111-84,§§4701-4713, 123 Stat. 2835 (2009). This legislation remains controversial, with opponents arguing that it violates free speech rights (by punishing homophobic and racist intent) and other provisions of the United States Constitution. Free speech is an important right, but so is the right to be free from animus-based crimes. Hate crime laws don’t punish speech or thoughts, but rather only punish individuals who take their beliefs too far and act on them to the detriment of others. That’s not the same thing as punishing people for their beliefs or associations.
Ryan Quinn’s The Fall is a reminder of why we need these types of protections in the law, reforms that hopefully send the message that no one in our country deserves to be harmed because of their race, religion, national origin, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. No one should feel afraid to be who they are.
*At the time this post was written. The number of groups may fluctuate.