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13 Years After Matthew

October 27, 2011

How did a gay boy’s murder change people, communities and national policy? Why does this straight chick care?

I’m straight-mostly. As a rule, I think hot people are hot. But I’ve been straight-practicing for about 20 years, and I get all the rights and privileges of being straight-married, so you know, I’m straight.

If I’m so straight, why do I get sad and reflective and angsty this time of year, around the time when Matthew Shepard was murdered? Because he changed me, and he changed my community and country. And I get sad because some things haven’t changed.

In October 1998, I got a call from the editor of a LGBT newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana. He tracked me down through mutual friends in human rights activism networks, a “Do you know any social justice folks in Wyoming?” kind of thing. The queer community in his hometown wanted to know what it was like in mine: Laramie, suddenly infamous as the place where a gay college student had been tortured and killed. Matthew. Laramie.

I agreed to write an article I didn’t want to write, “How Matthew’s Death is Changing Our Town.” It seemed selfish and disrespectful to Matthew and his family to be thinking about how our community, our town, had been impacted by the horrible crime. Also, I’d left journalism in part so I wouldn’t have to ask people questions about their deepest pain in the middle of their most terrible crisis. I wrote the article anyway, even though it meant asking my friends about their deepest pain and our town’s shameful crisis.

Re-reading the article this year, I was most struck by the closing quote, a question and a wish for the gay community and for Laramie: “What are we going to make out of this?” It was a good question, posed by a gay man who loved his community while not feeling completely loved by it. He was a friend, a writing buddy, one of the most caring souls I knew, so the question was important to me because it showed he still had hope that things could change. I wanted him to have hope. I wanted our town to have hope.

Since then, I’m happy and a little surprised that things have changed in Laramie, and our nation. The University of Wyoming strengthened its commitment to social justice and diversity. Some churches opened their doors to all community members. Some people felt safe (or angry) enough to come out to friends and family. Based on the stories of community members, the play The Laramie Project has educated thousands of people about the true cost of hate, and how complicated it is to heal. (Although, some productions I’ve seen also reinforce stereotypes about rural people.)

National hate crimes legislation was enacted in 2009, in great part because of Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, and the thousands of people who were inspired to act by their outrage about Matthew’s death. In addition to other provisions, the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act” extended legal protections for the first time to transgendered people. This year we saw the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, making it safer for all Americans to serve their country. These milestones haven’t just happened on their own, and it wasn’t just because of Matthew. It took hard work for years by people who were fighting for rights long before Matthew was murdered, and by folks who joined the cause after. He was a part of it, this rolling out of history, this slow but steady turning toward protecting every human’s rights. We’re all a part of it, whether we sit by watching, strain to stop it, or actively help the world to change.

We haven’t changed enough. Personally, I’m still making mistakes, sometimes saying and doing stupid homophobic things, taking my privileges for granted. Like that time recently, over beers with friends, I recounted Louis CK’s hilarious routine using the f*ggot word. “Hey,” I reasoned, “I found the routine via Dan Savage’s column, and he’s gay, so it must be OK.” Even though the Louis CK bit is actually gay-positive, I didn’t think about how using the word in public (to make myself look funny! ha! look at me!) could have made other people feel. I’m still a work in progress, and so are our communities and public policy.

Positive developments such as the Trevor Project and the It Gets Better Project are giving gay kids safety and advice. The Matthew Shepard Foundation continues to educate kids, campuses and communities. But these efforts exist because it still sucks to be gay in the USA. I get teary watching the It Gets Better videos of strong, successful adults advising gay youth to not give up hope. Their stories are powerful, but I’m crying from the heavy reality that makes the videos necessary: Gay kids are killing themselves. Parents, schools, churches and communities are raising kids that think it’s OK to bully and even kill gay kids.

As a democracy fan, it confuses me when I participate in a system that does not provide basic human rights (such as marriage and parental rights) equally to all its citizens.  As a defender of free speech, I’m scared seeing it used like a weapon against LGBT citizens. It pisses me off to witness so much creative American energy directed toward oppressing people, rather than solving our nation’s problems. As a mostly-straight person, it baffles me that any other straight person would feel threatened by gay folks getting married. It’s not like there’s some big marriage pie and we have to defend our little slice, people! That’s the great thing about equality: It makes the pie bigger for everyone.

This straight chick is proud of our communities and nation: In 13 years, real progress has been made for our gay brothers and sisters. But I’m still sad for the world’s loss of Matthew, and this time of year I grieve at a distance with his parents and family. Matthew’s memory (and the memory of every gay kid who has been killed or who has killed themselves) reminds us that pride isn’t enough. It’s a reminder of how much we have left to do.

Laramie was not unique. Many communities face tragedy. The next question is: “What are we going to make out of this?”

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