Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Matthew Shepard: 10 Years Later

10 years ago today, Matthew Shepard was found tied to a fence next to a rural bike path near Laramie, Wyoming. Matt was in a comatose state, barely breathing, and had been left out in the cold for 18 hours before he was found. One of the women that found him reported that the only areas on his face that were not covered with blood were two trails from his tears.

I wasn't out when Matthew Shepard died, and while I remember hearing about the story and watching the news coverage, I can't say that I remember being profoundly impacted at the time. I was a sophomore in college then, getting used to a new dorm and a new semester, and for some reason this terrible tragedy just didn't hit me like I know it would have today.

That's not to say that it didn't impact a lot of other people, though, and that's not to say that I didn't feel sorrow back then...I just didn't relate to it for some reason.

As much as we talk about gay rights and gay marriage and hate crimes and all of that other political stuff, it really takes a tragedy like this to put it all into perspective. In a perfect world, even if we disagreed about gay rights and all that comes with it, we could at least rest assured knowing that lives weren't on the line. Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world, and our words and actions have meanings.

I'm not trying to imply that people that fight against anti-gay marriage or hate crimes bills or anything like that are to blame for unconscionable acts of violence like Matthew Shepard's murder, but I do know that unfortunately it takes something like this to bring their theoretic view of politics into the realm of personal. That's really always been my complaint...that my life is directly impacted by the gay rights debate, and I end up arguing against/debating with people that have no real vested interest in the issue at all...they're arguing in the theoretical, and I'm arguing in the personal. So, I'm impassioned, and I get angry, and sometimes even a little consumed, but it's because it's my life we're talking about here, not some sort of political theory that sounds great in talking points.

Nothing good ever comes out of violence like Matt's murder, but sometimes it forces people into the personal level of an issue to finally see what they hadn't been able to previously.

The Advocate has an "oral history" type of article up about Matthew Shepard's final days. It's worth reading if nothing else to remember how far things have come. It takes the memories of a dozen or so people close to Matthew, or the case, to piece together what happened and how their lives have changed since.

Moises Kaufman, director of The Laramie Project is quoted in the article and talks about why a violent attack hits so closely to home for so many gay people, even those of us that have never had to deal with violence or taunting personally, saying "people have spoken about how we as gay people feel attacked, injured, constantly in our culture. And that image of that boy tied to the fence spoke to so many of us about our pain and about our sense of how we fit into the landscape of this country. The impact of seeing what this was doing to the country." In a way, Matthew Shepard's murder was a realization that the fears, the worries, the concerns were all well-founded, no matter how safe we'd felt. And, even if for a little while, it forced a lot of straight people to feel our fears and worries too.

But, most compelling to me were the words of the Laramie police chief at the time, Dave O'Malley. It's through his words that I saw how dramatically things can change when a political issue gets taken from the theoretical to the personal, no matter who you are. In his quote, O'Malley remembers how his own view of the world changed back then, saying "I wasn’t hugely homophobic, but I was mean-spirited. I bought into the jokes and the myths and stereotypes of the gay community. Because of what happened, I was forced to interact with that community. Quite frankly, I started losing my ignorance. Did I reevaluate my beliefs in that first week? In the old country we’d call that a no-shitter. It didn’t take very long at all for me to realize that I was dead wrong." Views change. My own dad's views have changed (for the most part at least), but not because someone argued with him about how gay marriage could become legal, but because he saw on a personal level what it all meant. Luckily, his personal view was a positive one, but sometimes the bad ones make headway too.

O'Malley goes on to express how his views of hate crimes changed as a result of the Shepard case. He went from having the common conservative view that "every crime was a hate crime" to realizing that all crimes simply aren't the same. He remembers how he "saw the difference with what happened to Matt,: and goes saying, "we had kids moving out of Laramie, transferring to other colleges. There was a huge amount of terror and fear -- I hadn’t seen that before. There are people killed during liquor store robberies every day in this country, but I never think twice about going to the liquor store. It’s a different kind of a motivation and a different kind of impact. I’ve now been to Washington to speak about hate-crimes legislation on seven occasions. It’s something I believe in, and I’m going to keep working at it."

So, 10 years after this country, gay and straight alike, were dealing with Matthew Shepard's death, I hope people keep remembering that political issues like these really do impact lives. We're talking about personal issues here, not just theoretical ones.


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