By Rick Rose
At 52 years old, John Skaggs was visiting one of his favorite places, Sandbar Club, a club in downtown Shreveport, casually enjoying the company of friends in early January of this year. In a horrible instant, he was out cold, and awoke in the hospital with horrific facial injuries including a broken jaw and eye socket. John, now a friend of mine, was bashed for simply being gay. William Payne was charged with attempted second-degree murder after allegedly breaking a pool cue over the face of Skaggs, completely unprovoked. Video surveillance at the club caught the attack showing that the two men had no interaction otherwise.
It’s been a long year of change for John: extensive surgeries, prolonged court dates, psychological consequences, public appearances including immediate ones showing his face in the press to let people know that hate and irrationality still exist and recent ones such as conversing with the cast (older and younger) of Shreveport Little Theatre’s The Laramie Project which was performed on the 35th birthday of Matthew Shepard.
In this web exclusive, John shares with me, and all of us, moments from his year’s journey.
RR: How has this experience made your life more challenging, more difficult?
JS: I find I am no longer comfortable in public places when I am alone. I do not go out alone anywhere as before I never hesitated to go somewhere if I wanted to. I am forced at times to face my fears and be in situations that now make me uncomfortable but I try not to let my fear show. I used to be a very outgoing person. Now I live more the life of a shut in.
JS: 1) After 41yrs of smoking a pack of cigs every day, I have not had one since the night it happened; 2) I have drank coffee all my life since I was about 6 or 7. Back in my day, parents did not know it was bad for a child so if the kid liked it, he was allowed to drink it. By the time I was an adult I have always consumed 2 to 3 pots a day. I would drink coffee into the evening and right up to bed time. I have had no caffeine of any kind since the night of my incident; 3) I returned to work six weeks after the incident. I manage a nightclub, so I would drink. I have always enjoyed my share of drinking. After I went back to work I was still on heavy doses of antibiotics, so I greatly reduced my consumption and discovered the taste was no longer pleasing . I have stopped drinking all together as of April 1 of this year, just 9 weeks after my incident.
RR: Were you emotionally ready to face William Payne in court, especially after the date had been moved and you were prepared the first time?
JS: Changing the date was not upsetting, I was prepared for that. Ready to face him though was something all-together different. I was not sure how I would handle it. And as I write the answers to these questions, the trial and sentencing has already taken place. They did amend the charge to assault, with a deadly weapon. The burden of proof for attempted second degree murder was just too great for a swift and speedy trial. He was found guilty and received 18 years with no parole, plus 5 years added for the state hate crime statue for a total of 23 years. The Federal government is pursuing its case and hopes to bring charges sometime late next year. And if he is tried and found guilty of their hate crime statute, then his sentence will automatically double to 46 years with no parole.
RR: Following the Three Strikes Law, if convicted Payne faced a life sentence. Do you agree with the somewhat controversial Three Strikes endorsed under President Clinton?
JS: Yes I do. I believe a habitual criminal of major offenses needs to be taken out of society. Yes there are lots of things as a society that we could do to help them before it gets to that point, and yes, it’s not a perfect system, but it’s the best we have and may be the best in the world for now. So yes , if an individual has not reformed or cleaned up his/her act and are continuing to cause harm or havoc to our society, then he/she needs to pay the price.
RR: Who were the first people at your side after you awoke from the incident?
JS: My family that live here. My brother and his wife and a visiting sister from out of town were first along with my boss that owns the nightclub where I work.
RR: Are your surgeries all complete?
JS: As i write this, I was cleared by my surgeon just four days ago and no longer need to see him. So yes, all are complete and all follow ups are now finished as well.
RR: Do you think LGBT folks are safe in larger more metropolitan cities or smaller cities, like Shreveport?
JS: I believe there is danger in both environments. But having lived in both, I have always felt safest in smaller cities—but that’s me. We should, and do, have the right to feel safe anywhere as long as we are not intruding on an individual’s personal rights.
RR: What was your experience like speaking to the cast of THE LARAMIE PROJECT? Did you seem to get more response from the older or younger members of the cast? Which group of people was more interesting for you to speak to? Were you surprised by that? Any questions that caught you off guard or really made you think?
JS: It was a very good experience. I was never one that enjoyed public speaking or being the center of attention; for me, the smaller the crowd the better. Since my incident, I have been requested to speak at several functions. I have not turned one down. But I am a bundle of nerves and stress over each one before I speak. The setting at this affair was by far my favorite. It was much smaller, and we sat in chairs like sitting around a campfire. They all seemed to have something to ask, and then, as in any group, there were a couple that asked several questions. The older ones in the group seemed to be interested in knowing what I was feeling throughout the ordeal while the younger ones seemed to want to more about how I dealt with being gay. But there were no big bombshells or surprises. They were a very good interactive group. I thoroughly enjoyed them.
RR: Why do you think it is so important to still perform plays like THE LARAMIE PROJECT across America?
JS: It certainly helps to bring these crimes to light. They happen far more then we know. It also helps to put a face to what people hear and read. Emotions are a great tool that can motivate individuals to perform great acts if given the chance.
RR: Would you step foot in the bar where Matthew Shepard met his attackers?
JS: Well,l as I said, I have a hard time right now going out at all, but every day I get stronger and face my fears. So in the near future, I could say yes I would go to that bar. I would be on guard, but yes I could face it.
RR: Many LGBT folks ask me what it is like to live in the South as a gay man. I ask you the same question? Has that feeling changed over the years? Has it changed since this experience?
JS: Believe me when I say it’s not a great deal different than the north. I was born and raised in Michigan and moved south when I was 19 and have been here since. I still go north every year as that’s where almost all my family are. Let’s face it. There is still a lot of prejudice in the world. But I am who I am. I don’t make excuses or apologies, so don’t ask me for any. I won’t invade your personal space, so don’t invade mine. I won’t try to make you or anyone else gay, so please don’t assume you can make me straight. Over the years, I have seen the level of tolerance and understanding keep climbing. Since my incident, I have lots of people approach me and support me and give me their understanding. These are people who never spoke to me before about my homosexuality.
RR: What are the important facts to remember from the incidents of the evening of your attack?
JS: That I was with a very disperse group of friends, mostly straight, some gay and that this happened to me with no cause on my part. He chose me as his target because someone he knew, his brother, playing pool behind my table and behind my back, overheard I was gay. I never saw him, never set eyes upon him, never spoke to him, until nine months later in court.
RR: Just as your healing began, a young gay man was attacked and burned by his perpetrators in East Texas two months ago. How did that news make you feel?
JS: I felt his pain. I wish this never would happen to anyone again.
RR: Have you become more of an activist since this event? Have you studied up more and spoken out more on hate crimes?
JS: I never saw myself as an activist; I still don’t. I am not confident being in the public eye. I am getting stronger. I am forever in debt to all those that are strong enough to be out there for all the rest of us. My hat goes off to each and every one!
RR: As a senior member of the LGBT community like me, what traits do you look for in a partner, these days? Have those traits been the same through the years or are they different than when you were 25?
JS: I look for someone that is comfortable in who he is . I was with someone for 17 years that was not a happy person in who he was. I am very stubborn and don’t give up easy, but now that I am out of that, I could not go back to that type of relationship. We remain friends. He has and has grown in the last few years. I am proud of him. And yes, as I have matured, what I want and look for in a partner has matured.
RR: Tell me about your dogs. Would your partner have to be a lover of dogs, as you are?
JS: I have two: a Rat Terrier named “Bob” and a Bichon Frise named “Dash.” Both are 8 years old. I love animals. A partner of mine would NOT have to be an animal lover. I have said many times that after these two, I am done with pets. I had a cat for 13 years, and when she died, I said the same thing. (pause, then smile) I guess I can’t imagine my life without them.
RR: Shreveport is the L.A. of the South. Have you had any encounters or fun experiences with movie stars in your line of work or while living here?
JS: No I have not. They have filmed several times near where I live, including, most recently Gerard Butler, Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta Jones, so I have gotten to see stars at work from a distance as I walk my dogs.
RR: Who was your favorite rapper/singer/entertainer to work with over your years of doing what it is you do? Why? And how about on the other end of things, anyone you would rather not work with again, and why?
JS: I know this sounds shallow, and even though it is my line of work, I don’t even think about it. I have seen Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Ice-T and some others at our club. I don’t have a favorite; it’s not my kind of music to be honest. At work, I don’t have the time to do more then make sure that things are running smoothly, from the tickets being collected to making sure the artist gets to the stage without being mobbed, and he has everything he needs to be comfortable.
RR: I know you no longer drink, but what is your favorite drink to share with a friend over conversation? Any special recipes for a mixed drink?
JS: May be boring, but does anything get better then an ice cold…and I mean ice cold…beer? Mixed drinks? I would say I prefer a good old Margarita no salt.
JS: I want to thank you and lgbtSR.com for asking me to do this, Rick.
RR: John, we appreciate you. Happy holidays. Thanks for sharing your empowering story. Now I will let you go walk your dogs!