Lessons from a Lynching

Wyoming seemed a distant place until I set foot in the Cathedral Church of St. Mark last month. I'd read the newspaper reports with trepidation and committed the details of Matthew Shepard's murder to memory (scarecrow, 21-year-old, .357 Magnum), but the full impact of the Laramie lynching eluded me until I saw the crowd inside the church. More than 1,100 people jammed the sanctuary's aisles and benches Oct. 14 to mourn Shepard's death: They'd never met Matthew, but they knew him all the same.

That same evening, in Washington, D.C., more than 5,000 people gathered on the steps of the Capitol to condemn Shepard's killing. As the week went on, cries of outrage and sadness sounded from pulpits and podiums across the country: President Clinton denounced the murder as a "heinous" while ministers in Minneapolis and St. Paul issued a call for tolerance and an end to violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Newspapers churned out thousands of articles chronicling the attack, the reaction, the funeral, the protests by hate-monger Fred Phelps.

The groundswell reaction to Shepard's death was astounding. So impressive, in fact, that the father of one of the suspects in the slaying told the Denver Post that the media had blown the event "totally out of proportion because it involved a homosexual." The governor of Wyoming and religious conservatives voiced similar sentiments. Even within the queer community there were veiled grumblings among some activists that such killings were nothing new, that Shepard wouldn't have gotten any media attention had he not been young, male, and white.

But the reaction--proportional or not--was unstoppable. And the outpouring of emotion among both gays and straights was quickly followed with calls to grass-roots action. In Shepard's name, the banner was hoisted high for causes ranging from politics to religion to fundraising. We must fight, cried some activists. We must push for stiffer hate-crimes penalties, said others. We must vote. We must rally around queer causes. We must demand equal rights. We must cast off fear and march in the streets.

But the woman sniffling beside me at St. Mark's--tears streaming down her face--didn't need marching orders. Those people packed in the pews and standing in the hallways weren't at a loss for how to respond. They'd gathered not to rally, but to mourn. In Shepard's face, they saw their own, or Brandon Teena's, or Howard Liebhaber's, David Madsen's, John Chenoweth's, Gregor Anderson's. They saw dreams abandoned alongside the road of coming-out--bygone hopes for children, for reconciliation, for an unjudgmental embrace.

Shepard's death, as horrible as it was, gave us the public space to grieve. For a few hours under St. Mark's roof, the Twin Cities community--queer and straight--came together in a way it rarely has to mourn our collective losses. Activist rallies and Coming-Out Day celebrations have their place in boosting our confidence and inspiring us to action, but moments to catch our breath are far and few between. They're also necessary. By all means, get out and vote. By all means, call for tough sentences when it comes to hate-motivated crimes. By all means, roll up your sleeves and fight. But for Matthew's sake, take time to stop and remember, to gather your strength. You'll need it: The road ahead requires all your fortitude.

 
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