December 1, 1976(1976-12-01)
|Died||October 12, 1998 (aged 21)
Fort Collins, Colorado
Prologue: Since this was written on October 12, 2002, some of the essay is not up to date. I have purposely not changed it.
I often speak about my memories of Matthew and Laramie. I have never met him and
never been there, yet it greatly effects me. Every time I think about it, it
hits me again: the tremendous impact Matt's murder has had on my life and our
culture. And I never fail to stress how much more there is to do to create a
world where hate crimes and bias do not thrive.
<< Whether I'm talking to a friend or my therapist, one of the most common questions I'm asked is, "Why did Matt's murder affect you so much?" Truth is, there's no simple answer to that question, and it's likely I'll continue to explore the real, very complex truths behind that story for a long time to come. Most likely though, it churned up memories of when I was beaten up by 6 or so boys much older than me when I was 12 years old. While I was being beaten the following words have been etched in my mind: "We should kill you, you f%$king faggot - fags like you don't deserve to live!" All the while the assault kept taking place "Faggot! Faggot! Faggot!" -- over and over again. After that time, I shut myself off from everyone, and it was likely then that I developed my bi-polar disorder. I had mentioned to my best friend Randy that I thought another boy at school was cute. Inadvertently, he told a friend of his and word got around school. I was left lying on the school field, in the dark, weak and bruised, after being kicked over and over, in the head, chest and back. I had to crawl around in the dark looking for my shoes as they tore them off me and threw them away. Someone had kicked me very hard in the bottom, which for a week or so, pained me to sit. I managed to clean up at Randy's house before going home, and most of the bruises were in areas that I could hide from my parents - I certainly couldn't tell them I was just beaten up for being a fag. I still have back pain from that day. They could have killed me, but they didn't. I was lucky... I guess. I received several more beatings throughout my years at Junior High. That came to an abrupt end when the city changed the school borders and I got a fresh start in another school where I likely would not run into those in the past. >>
I do know that there are some answers we don't explore enough. For example, we know the people with privilege and power in our community stood up when Matt was killed, prompting the media to take notice. People who identified with Matt leveraged their resources to pressure others into doing something. It is as simple and yet also more complex than that. However, my thoughts weren't so strong for other hate victims like Latina transgender teen Gwen Araujo or Sakia Gunn and J. R. Warren, both teens of African descent. Maybe it's because you need to be able to relate a death to something, somewhere in your personal experience. If we, as a diverse community, do not address issues of race and gender and their impact our movement's response to incidents like this, we will continue to be frustrated by the unfairness and inconsistency of media coverage of hate violence.
But even more than five years after his death, Matthew Shepard's story remains a point of reference for so many people. His name didn't fade away because people who loved and knew him, and many others, like me, who never met him at all, have kept his memory and his commitment to a world where people love and accept one another alive. Judy and Dennis Shepard started the Matthew Shepard Foundation and through it, work tirelessly to educate and advocate for respect and acceptance. Romaine Patterson, Matt's friend, became a civil rights activist following his death. Moises Kaufman's "The Laramie Project" has brought the first-person stories of the people of Laramie to countless theatergoers (and HBO viewers) across the nation.
Moises' play asked the questions that we still find ourselves asking today: why are people beaten and killed simply because of who they are, how does that impact the rest of us and what role do we all play in the aftermath of such tragedies? There are no simple answers to that question, but what some people don't realize is that the question is just as, if not more relevant today than it was in 1998.
In the past few weeks, as journalists have asked about the impact of Matt's murder, they all presume there 'surely' has been great change. Has there? They don't know that there are still 36 states where it's legal to fire someone simply for being gay. In Canada it's different. We now have protection. What they don't that know there is still no federal hate crimes legislation or workplace protection that covers GLBT people in the US. And contrary to the mistaken notions of many reporters, we cannot get married in Vermont, Hawaii, or, for that matter, anywhere in the United States. Everyone must go to Ontario or B.C for that. Saskatoon also has a great deal of anti-same-sex marriage advocates. I can't help but feel afraid to walk down the street sometimes, with such narrow minded, scared individuals. Is fear NOT the emotion behind Matt's death? I don't even want to get married. But that's not the point. I should be able to marry anyone I wish to, providing they are above the age of legal consent. And hey! I'm over 40 and I have NO interest in anyone younger than myself.
Sadder still are the statistics that demonstrate that hate crimes are still with us. This summer, when the Lawrence vs Texas decision filled the headlines and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was the runaway television phenomenon, next with "It's All Relative"and "Mambo Italiano", I am sure violence against GLBT people will surge. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs recently confirmed a long-held suspicion: increased visibility certainly promotes education and understanding, but combined with strong denunciations of our lives (as we've seen by the anti-gay right post-Lawrence) it can also incite those with a predisposition to commit bias crimes. Hence, why I have a perfect right to feel scared in my own town, on my own streets.
According the NCAVP, anti-LGBT and HIV-related violence reports tend to increase 8% in July (as people respond to outreach encouraging them to make reports at Pride events). This July's report noted that at the height of the "Gay Summer," reported hate crimes rose an astounding 52%. Similar trends have been seen in other cities, such as Toronto, where reports of anti-LGBT violence have risen close to 30% since the Ontario courts legalized same-sex marriage early in the summer.
Before and after Matthew's murder, GLAAD has often worked with communities reeling from a bias related incident, particularly when the community is calling on the media to bring attention to the issue or when media coverage is sensationalized. It is an often frustrating and complex part of a community's response to hate crimes but the only way to put a face on this issue for the public. From Gwen Araujo to Sakia Gunn to J. R. Warren, there have been many people seeking help and support, but far fewer from the media who should be there on the front lines telling their stories.
Click above for words and music to American Triangle by Elton John.
Here's the reality: I cringe, I cry, I get angry and I get busy every time I hear about someone we have lost. I don't need to feel "there but for the Grace of God go I" to get off my ass. Truth be told, I identified much more with Matthew Shepard's murder than most others. Matthew was a quiet nice boy who never harmed anyone but was struck down, just for being who he was. He had the courage and he deserves respect. Phelp's from Westboro is nothing but a pompous, bigoted ass, in his planning to erect a statue 'in honour' of Matt's death. Inscription to read: October 12, 1998 - The day Matthew Shepard entered Hell". I mean what is this world coming to when murdered people are made to be the devil incarnate, just for being a homosexual?
It's been more than five years since Matthew was killed, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Likening some of what he went through when I was a boy of twelve. I should be dead. But I was lucky. Matt was not.
Five years worth of feelings, faces and memories cascaded through me, connecting Matt to the many others since him whose lives have been irrevocably altered or cut short by hate and violence. My hope is that, as our community pauses to remember, we will each of us commit both to remembering Matthew Shepard and to remembering all those whose names and lives we simply can't let fade away. I refuse to have had Matthew taken from the world and be forgotten. I will always think of Matthew, when I remember when I was twelve, and I will always remember when I was twelve, whenever I think of Matthew.
-compiled from several resources.
To see how Rev. Phelps and The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas treats homosexuals, click on http://www.godhatesfags.com
Written October 12, 2002