Remembering Matthew

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.

On Oct. 7, 1998, the day Matthew Shepard became the target of a brutal beating by two University of Wyoming students, I learned to fear again. Since the day he was beaten, protests and vigils held in his name have swept this country. On Oct. 12, 1998, my fear turned to anger. I am angry because it is unlawful for me to cry fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire, but it is perfectly tolerable for Fred Phelps to advocate the mass murder of GLBT people. I am angry because conservative activist Beverly LeHaye spouts her anti-gay rhetoric under the guise of family values. I am angry because Utah Senator Orrin Hatch is stalling the passage of a federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act that would include gays. I am angry because Pat Robertson, a professed Christian, has spurned the greatest commandment to love for a twisted advocacy of hate. I am angry because I have learned to fear for my life because of the sex of the person that I love.

I spent most of National Coming Out Week, which was celebrated Oct. 12-16 at the University of Minnesota, organizing and rallying students, staff, faculty, administrators, and community members. The Queer Student Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota, along with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Programs Office, sponsored a coming-out advertisement dedicated to the memory of Matthew Shepard in the Minnesota Daily. I have also authored a resolution for the Minnesota Student Association to provide funding and programming on hate crimes at the University of Minnesota in conjunction with various student and community organizations.

We in Minnesota have spent too much time being complacent and forgetting that we are not free from hate crimes and prejudice. It is time that we remember that there is a gubernatorial candidate who would like nothing better than to repeal the GLBT protections in the state Human Rights Act. We have to remember that we are only a progressive state on GLBT issues, not a perfect state.

We can do something about hate crimes. We can vote. We can remove from office those people who believe we don't have the right of equal access and protection. We can remove from office those people who devalue our lives and disregard our success, triumphs, loves, and fears. We have been beaten, degraded, and killed. The people are rallying, the time for fighting is now.

Brandon Lacy Campos is co-chair of the Queer Student Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota.

Standing in the rain at a vigil for Matthew Shepard a few weeks ago brought back images of the first gay man I knew who was killed by hate.

Seven years ago, in the summer of 1991, I helped organize a vigil for that young man, Joel Larson, who was shot to death in Loring Park while cruising. It was a very different time. There was no outpouring of support from the straight community. The media treated the shooting, and the murder of John Chenoweth a few weeks later, as a gay freak show. Many GLBT crime victims were too fearful of the criminal-justice system to report acts of violence. Minnesota had no openly gay cops. Queers were not protected by state anti-discrimination laws. The nation saw gay people almost exclusively as victims of AIDS.

Matthew Shepard's murder was different. This time, for the first time, the nation rose up and condemned the hate.

President Clinton called for a national hate-crimes bill. Editorial pages from Wyoming to Minnesota to New York condemned the hate behind the killing. Vigils held across the country packed churches and auditoriums beyond anyone's expectations. Even the jocks on the football team at Shepard's school, the University of Wyoming, wore ribbons of solidarity.

In Minneapolis, at St. Mark's church on the edge of Loring Park, over 1,100 people, gay and straight, attended a vigil for Shepard, filling every pew and aisle and spilling out into the rain. The Minneapolis vigil was one of dozens organized around the county in just two days, solely by word of mouth. It was an amazing outpouring of support.  

Yet I left St. Mark's feeling strangely empty. I thought I was in a time warp, back in 1991 or even earlier. No one who spoke at the vigil seemed to grasp the power of what was happening. All we heard were tales of fear and the rhetoric of victimization. We were weak. Our gains meant nothing. Our enemies loomed all powerful.

Beth Zemsky, director of GLBT programs at the University of Minnesota, told us about the paralyzing fear students were experiencing in the wake of Shepard's murder. Not one student, we were told, felt safe enough to speak at the vigil. That's crazy. Yes, anti-gay violence happens, even in Minnesota, but our campuses and communities are safer now than ever before. Our students have the power to come out. Even in the shadow of murder, we must speak out against fear, not embrace it.

Zemsky and nearly every other speaker dwelled on the power of the religious right--their ads, their presence at Shepard's funeral, their influence in Congress. But no one saw the obvious: the religious right could never do what the gay-rights movement was doing at that very moment: They could never move a nation.

We have to stop treating our enemies as our political superiors. In just a few short years, the gay-rights movement has won over the education establishment, the leaders of nearly every big city, the President, the news media, Hollywood, and much of mainstream religion. At moments of tragedy, we must acknowledge that power, not dismiss it. The protesters at Shepard's funeral were fools. Our supporters who quietly held up their coats and umbrellas to hide the messages of hate were heroes--for all the nation to see.

Brennan Hannon, of the Minnesota AIDS Project, was the vigil's most powerful speaker. Unfortunately, his speech was little more than outdated slogans forcefully delivered. It was a "wake-up call," but it looked backwards. It was an effective expression of anger, but it did little more than celebrate the politics of victimization. "We are putting this nation on alert, we will not let this happen again," Hannon declared. I've heard that before, too many times.

Instead of issuing empty bromides, I wish Hannon had used his considerable rhetorical skills to acknowledge the power before him, the power of being part of a national outcry against hate. His call for action should have been an open hand, not a clenched fist.

Anger can be powerful, but living openly gay lives and encouraging others to come out in an increasingly accepting society is much more powerful. Violence touches our lives, but our power to condemn it is much greater than its power to control us.

The best way to remember Matthew Shepard is not to exaggerate the power of the thugs who killed him, but to embrace the thousands, even millions, of people who rose up for him. We can seize this moment or we can wallow in it. What will we do?

Ken Darling is a longtime Twin Cities activist and a Q Monthly contributing columnist.

Responses to the death of Matthew Shepard

"There is a lot of talk about tolerance...That society should be tolerant of other lifestyles. That we should be tolerant of people different than the mainstream. Let me tell you what I think of tolerance. No more tolerance. I will not tolerate the attitude that they can do this to us. I will not tolerate living my life in fear. I will not tolerate censoring pronouns when I talk about my dates. I will not tolerate being called a faggot. I will not tolerate a disapproving look when I kiss my lover. I will not tolerate what they did to Matthew."

--Brennan Hannon, Minnesota AIDS Project

"When there is a tragic and senseless death such as Matthew's, our whole society suffers. It makes us ask: Where is human decency? Where is simple justice? Never is our moral resolve more urgently needed than now. Never should we forget the great wrong visited on Matthew Shepard and his friends and family."

-- Mark G. Yudof, president, University of Minnesota

"The Hate Crimes Prevention Act would give the federal government the power to investigate crimes such as the one committed against Matthew Shepard. There are those who say we don't need another law, the system is adequate. But passing this law is the way to enforce and reinforce the fair-minded belief that intolerance is not a national or family value."

-- Larry Buntin, board of governors, Human Rights Campaign

"Matthew's mother Judy says that he loved his church all his life, even when he felt that it rejected him for being gay. He was determined to remain within the community of the church and work for change by his presence there. He knew that if the church or some parts of the church rejected him, God did not. He knew that he was a beloved child of God, made in the very image of the creator and called good. It was part of what made him who he was, this inner sense of trust in the goodness of God's creation. Those who knew him say that Matthew was a kind, gentle, person who took everybody at face value and did not see the bad side to anyone. In the end, this may have been why Russell and Aaron killed him."  

--The Rev. Theo Park, St. Alban's Episcopal Church

"I think I realized tonight...that I have to do better as a U.S. senator for this community."

-- U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone

"There are those who think they have killed Matthew Shepard. His body is gone, but his spirit and his soul is here among us, among the people of Minnesota, among the people of this world. Fifty years ago, my father said, 'Let us get out of the shadows of discrimination, ignorance, intolerance, and hatred, and let us get into the bright sunshine.' The shadows come back, but the eloquent words I have heard tonight, of waking up, of taking action, of accepting responsibility, and doing what must be done, are stronger and will roll back those shadows. We will see a brighter sunshine. Matthew will be there with us."

-- Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey, state attorney general and gubernatorial candidate

"This heinous crime deserves the condemnation of all Americans. Hate crimes such as this and the June murder of James Byrd in Texas are violent acts motivated by intolerance and hatred. I trust that those responsible for this horrendous attack will be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law and firmly believe that we must pass the tough hate-crimes legislation pending in the Congress to help stop these despicable acts."

-- Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, House Democratic leader

"No law will change attitudes at a stroke of the President's pen. Nor would a hate-crime law in Wyoming have protected Shepard any more than the laws against murder, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping did. But laws are one of the ways by which a society resolves to transform itself, and they are one of the vehicles a society uses to examine and govern itself. In too many minds--it would be too many even if it were only a few--the murder of a gay man is not quite as serious as the murder of a straight one. And the murder of a gay man who dares to flirt with a straight one is, in those minds, pretty close to justifiable. If the problem were only murder, the laws against murder might be enough. But the problem is hate."

-- Editorial, Star Tribune

"Tonight...there is a story to be told. It is the story of the death of Matthew, and it is the story of your lives. Demand nothing short of fairness, accuracy, balance, and truth. Demand perspective and context. And to the reporters here tonight, let me challenge you not to marginalize gays and lesbians in your coverage. Don't cover us as a monolithic group--for we are as diverse as the rainbow suggests. And finally, when it comes to chronicling the fullness and richness of our lives--let not the coverage begin and end with our deaths."

--Karen Louise Boothe, president, National Lesbian and Gay Journalists' Association

"How can you be shocked when many people don't think twice about calling someone a fag or dyke? How can you be shocked when the sex that we have is still illegal in many states? How can you be shocked when the religious right has, for years, been waging a campaign of hate against the GLBT community? They're all steps. Steps in a progression of violence. A hate crime like this does not come out of nowhere. Our society breeds it through ignorance and hatred."

-- M.S., a University of Minnesota student

"These senseless acts of hate and violence have no place in our communities or in our nation, and we join the American people today in expressing our sense of outrage."

-- Vice President Al Gore

"Almost one year ago I proposed that Congress enact the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Our federal laws already punish some crimes committed against people on the basis of race or religion or national origin, but we should do more. This crucial legislation would strengthen and expand the ability of the Justice Department to prosecute hate crimes by removing needless jurisdictional requirements for existing crimes and by giving federal prosecutors the power to prosecute hate crimes committed because of the victim's sexual orientation, gender, or disability. All Americans deserve protection from hate."  

-- President Bill Clinton

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