Remembering Matthew

In the wake of a Wyoming man's murder, the Twin Cities and the nation respond

On Oct. 14, carrying candles and clutching umbrellas, the crowd gathered at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Minneapolis to remember Matthew Shepard. More than 1,100 people packed the church's pews and aisles, while others remained outside. Several hundred were turned away for lack of space in what was believed to be one of the largest vigils in the nation sparked by the Wyoming man's beating and death.

The assembled came for different reasons: to cry, to rant, to rage. They came to find community, closeness, comfort. They came to preach, to pray, to gawk, to listen. They came to mourn those Minnesotans who have experienced a similar fate: Howard Liebhaber, Jeffrey Trail, Gregory Barnes, Wally Lundin, Gregor Anderson, Joel Larson, John Chenoweth, David Madsen, and others.

But if Shepard's death became the focal point that brought queers and straights together to speak out, the question remains, what next? Words, as many vigil speakers indicated, may not be enough. But the responses to Shepard's death--the lessons, the morals--remain as varied as the members of the queer community. Following are the viewpoints of three individuals who have kept their eye on queer activism, history, and social change.

The torture and subsequent death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming is an unbelievably heinous act of violence and hatred. As shocking as such an event is, however, we all know that Matthew Shepard is not alone; many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people experience similar horrors. This could well have been any one of us. As a community, we can choose to allow this violence to chase us back into the closet or we can channel our anger towards ending the homophobia that permits such a crime to occur.

Unlike Wyoming, Minnesota has hate-crimes laws that are inclusive of sexual orientation. While they currently apply only to a few misdemeanor level crimes, they still serve as a deterrent and guide the public policy of this state. The law provides for enhanced penalties and mandates documentation of hate crimes. Documentation provides the public with a picture of the extent of the problem, so that proper legal remedies, training, intervention, and services can be implemented. Finally, the message of the law--that hatred and bias-motivated behavior will not be tolerated in this state--may provide the most powerful impact.

There are few community-based anti-violence programs in Minnesota like OutFront Minnesota's, which works to document and ensure prosecution of hate crimes. Experts who work in this area believe that the current laws are inadequate to address the proliferation of hate crimes in this state. For the last three years, OutFront Minnesota has worked to advance legislation that would enhance the penalties on arson, vandalism, and electronic stalking when hate or bias motivation is evident. We have also worked with lawmakers on bills that would require additional training of law-enforcement personnel and prosecutors so that hate-crimes laws are appropriately enforced and recorded. These attempts have failed.

Opposition to hate-crimes legislation is often wrapped in rhetoric that argues that all crimes are hate crimes and, therefore, we do not need to create a special category of law. The reality is that not all crimes are hate crimes. The murder of Matthew Shepard and the violent death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, have a very different effect than a killing over a drug deal gone sour or the theft of credit cards or pickpocketing or shoplifting. Hate crimes have an entire class of people--people of color, women, GLBT people--as their intended victims. We need only to observe the community outcry over the brutality against Shepard and Byrd to understand this. We acutely feel their deaths because we were all targets of the crime.

The same people who espouse the view that all crimes are hate crimes are typically the same people who believe that civil-rights legislation allows GLBT people to have special rights. This refusal to legislate remedies where discrimination, harassment, and hatred are factors is homophobic--whether it is for "moral" reasons or out of ignorance. Unless we acknowledge the danger of a homophobic and heterosexist environment and begin to address the problems through legislation and education we will be doomed to repeat the patterns. Voting on Nov. 3 is the first step to addressing such problems.

When the Legislature returns to the capitol in January, OutFront Minnesota will be there, lobbying elected officials to strengthen hate-crimes legislation. Join us on March 4, 1999, for our annual GLBT Community Lobby Day. It will be a time to let your elected officials know that the torture and murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd did not silence you.

Ann DeGroot is the executive director of OutFront Minnesota, the state's largest GLBT advocacy and support organization.

For the last four years I have been out to my family, friends, co-workers, and high-school classmates. Since the day I left the closet I haven't felt fear because of my sexual orientation. There was a time when I dreamt every night of being hunted down by my classmates and being beaten for being different. There was a time when my heart began to pound any time the words gay, lesbian, or bisexual were spoken. But the day my coming-out letter reached my mother, I stopped fearing.

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