Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Remembering Matthew Shepard

I was living in Israel in October 1998, so I'm not sure when I first heard about the murder of 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. But sometime later, after I was back in the United States, I remember watching a segment on television about the crime.

Listening to the details of how he was tied to a fence and beaten and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie made me sick. And the fact that Shepard was targeted because he was gay made it even more horrifying.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Shepard's death. His body was discovered on Oct. 6 and he died on Oct. 12, 1998.

One of the most noteworthy efforts to remember Shepard began five weeks after he died. Members of New York's Tectonic Theater Project, including cofounder Moises Kaufman, traveled to Laramie to interview people who knew him or were connected with the case, or were just ordinary citizens, straight and gay. After a year and more than 200 interviews, the transcripts were turned into a play, The Laramie Project. In 2002, the play became an HBO movie.

I watched The Laramie Project for the first time this week. Once again, hearing the detailed description of Shepard's injuries made me so sick that I had to turn down the volume on my tv. There are breathtaking views of the wide-open Wyoming landscape and I was struck by the contradiction of something so awful occurring in a place filled with so much beauty.

It's heartbreaking to hear gay and lesbian citizens talk about how they lived quietly, in fear, before the death of Matthew Shepard. And it's also inspiring to hear how his death galvanized them, along with many straight Wyoming citizens, to speak out against homophobia, no matter what the consequences.

But sadly, there's also a disheartening interview with a rancher and his wife, who seem totally unaware of their bigotry. They can't see the connection between saying things like, "I certainly don't approve of homosexuals" and the murder of Matthew Shepard. They don't seem to understand that their disapproval - their demonization - contributes to an atmosphere in which violence against gay people can occur.

I thought about how I would feel if the word "homosexual" were changed to "Jewish" in this excerpt:

Rancher: I think the Jewish community is taking this as an advantage, said, this is a good time for us to exploit this.
Wife: They made it sound like it was 10 murders instead of one.
Rancher: They're accusing the ranchers of being unreasonable and unsympathetic because of how he was.
Wife: And what his persuasion was. Well, he would certainly be welcome in our home we'd visit, sit down, have a cup of coffee.
Moises Kaufman: What did you think when you heard that two boys from your town did this?
Rancher: Well I certainly don't approve of Jews but I don't think anybody has a right to do what those two boys did.
Moises Kaufman: Well where do you think that comes from, their hatred toward Jews?
Wife: I think what most people fear in the Jewish community is that religion is their number one concern,
Rancher: Not many people condone it
Wife: When you wear it on your sleeve like a banner.

Of course today, they probably wouldn't talk like that about Jews, at least not openly, not to strangers who are recording their words. I'm fairly certain they would know it wasn't acceptable. But they seem perfectly comfortable expressing their disapproval of gay people, blaming them for homophobic acts, as if they had it coming.

As well-made and important as I think The Laramie Project is, my biggest fear is that people will take away from it the wrong message: that homophobia only occurs in small towns or rural America or among people from certain economic classes. But prejudice and antigay hatred and ignorance - as well as love and respect and support - occur everywhere.

Kaufman and the theater company returned to Laramie this year, to see how attitudes toward gay and lesbian people have changed, and to write an epilogue to the play. He tells The New York Times, "I guess what disappoints me isn’t so much Laramie, it’s the fact that more social progress hasn’t happened everywhere.”

One of the most moving parts of The Laramie Project comes near the end, when Shepard's father addresses the court before the sentencing of one of his son's killers and says that the family will not insist on the death penalty. His father talks about how Matthew was with God when he died. This week, as my thoughts are with all of those who knew and loved Matthew Shepard, I hope they take comfort in the knowledge that he is in a place where no one can harm him, that he is at peace.

Since Shepard's death, his parents have created an educational foundation to fight hatred. Last month, the University of Wyoming dedicated a bench in Shepard's memory. But the Matthew Shepard Act, a bill that would extend federal hate-crimes law to include crimes motivated by a person's sexual orientation, has still not been enacted into law. And, of course, hate crimes persist.

While it didn't have any connection to the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's murder, in August I joined PFLAG - Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. It's a coincidence, but a fitting one, I think.

Over the summer, I wrote about the successful effort to overturn a 1913 law that had been used to prevent out-of-state gay couples from marrying in Massachusetts. A dear friend e-mailed me, thanking me for being supportive and suggested that I join. I wrote him back and said it was a great idea.

I admire my friend so much for the way he's stood up against all forms of bigotry - including racism and anti-Semitism. How could I not do the same for him? Plus, as he and his partner celebrate their fifth anniversary, it seemed like the perfect way to honor their relationship - this year and every year.

I'm not normally a joiner but I'm glad that I joined PFLAG. All I have to do is look at their sweet, smiling faces and think about how much these two good men love each other, how much their friendship means to me, how proud I am to know them, and I know it was the right thing to do.

It may not be much, but it's my own little contribution toward ensuring that everyone has the opportunity that was denied Matthew Shepard - to live openly and free from fear. It is simply our right as Americans and as human beings to do so.


Amanda said...

I remember vaguely hearing about this, but I was in college at the time with no access to TV, so the details escaped me for some time. It was such a sad thing. :(

I didn't know you'd lived in Israel. Where did you live? How long were you there?

Margo said...

Great post! Thanks for letting me know about PFLAG. I'll look into joining too.

Katie Ganem said...

I have always wanted to see The Laramine Project. My friend and I had to leave our church due to the blatant homophobia they displayed, and although we are not gay, our support of those who are made us targets. I like to think that this is similar to how interracial couples were banned and looked down upon only a few decades ago. Luckily America has come a long way in regards to social change. I only hope this can be the next change we undergo (hopefully soon.)

Esther said...

What a courageous thing for you and your friend to do.

It's tough to take on the bigots, especially when they target you in return. It would have been easy to back down and give in. But I admire you and your friend for doing the right thing, for sticking to your principles and standing up for what you believe in.

I've always believed that it's not just the job of Jews to fight anti-Semitism or blacks to fight racism or women to fight sexism or gay people to fight homophobia. It's all of our responsibilities.

If you look at the history of the United States over the past half-century, it's all about becoming more inclusive, expanding civil rights to more and more people - African-Americans, women, the disabled, and now, gay and lesbian Americans. No one in this country should be treated as a second-class citizen. No one should be targeted or discriminated against for the way they were born.

You're right, we have come a long way as a country. And it's people like you and your friend who give me hope for the future.