News & Politics

Still Failing Matthew Shepard, 15 Years Later

Last night I had the strangest dream. I dreamt I attended a community play about the 1998 brutal beating and death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, and the play was performed by a troupe of Jewish high school kids, all of whom spend at least half their daytime hours studying Torah and codified Jewish law.

Ok, so it wasn’t a dream. I really did attend a production of “The Laramie Project” last night at the Baird Theater in South Orange, N.J, beautifully and expertly performed by the theater troupe from Golda Och Academy, a conservative Jewish day school. But to this cynical 42-year-old Orthodox Jewish-bred girl from Monsey, who never heard the word “gay” uttered in anything but derogatory fashion, if it was uttered at all, in high school, the experience was a bit, well, dreamlike.

Last month was the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. It’s been 15 years since this 21-year-old man was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead. And yet it doesn’t seem that long to me at all. I remember it too well—the fence, the reporters standing in front of it struggling to sum up so brutal a crime, then the trial, the sentencing. But what remains sharpest in my memory is the conversation about whether Matthew was asking for it. Whether he’d come on to his two attackers. Whether he was of questionable character. Whether his HIV-positive status was evidence that he was complicit in his own demise.

The homophobe in me hoped so. I never said it aloud, never admitted it to myself, even. I can only recognize it now, as an adult, years later. I can’t express how ashamed I am to admit that I do think I was hoping that somehow he was at fault. The same way I was trained from young girlhood to hope that women who were raped in Central Park at night were to blame for the way they dressed.

I wanted to believe Matthew Shepard did something to invite his fate. Because if he didn’t, then what? Then we are, all of us, just targets lined up on a fence, waiting for the shot that kills us.

Tonight, watching the extraordinary performance of the Golda Och theater troupe, I was moved to tears—not only by the story of Matthew’s unforgivably senseless, violent end, but by the memory of my own betrayal at the age of 27, one year out of the closet and apparently, none the wiser for my still limited experience. Deeply entrenched in my own internalized hate, I struggled to accept other gays and lesbians, just as I struggled to accept myself.

The Laramie Project, a play by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, premiered in 2000 and has since been performed in countless highschools, colleges and community theaters. The play tells the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder and the affect of its aftermath on the town of Laramie, drawing on hundreds of interviews conducted by the theatre company with members of the town. What you see, over and over, is the battle between tolerance and acceptance, between the passive animosity of “live and let live” and the full recognition of the rights of a minority group to live equally among the majority.

As far as we’ve come in 15 years, too little has changed in that regard. Wyoming, Shepard’s own state, is one of four that has repeatedly refused to adopt any hate crimes protections, along with Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina. Yes, we now have 16 states with marriage equality. But in 34 states it is still not legal for two people of the same gender to marry. In 29 states, gays can be fired just for being gay; in 34 states it is legal to fire someone solely for being transgender. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which has been introduced, and killed, in every Congress except one since 1994, finally passed the Senate last week. But House Speaker John Boehner opposes the measure, and “senior aides say it’s unlikely to even come up for a vote in the House.”

Here’s the thing. The absence of basic civil rights for a minority group is what enables the majority to treat members of the minority as less than human. It’s what allows for the “gay panic” defense, as though unwanted sexual attention from a member of one’s own gender is justifiable defense for homicide.

The lack of civil rights and legal protection for LGBT people in our country is what allows those who hate us to see us as a justifiable target rather than a beating heart. It’s what convinces them no one will miss us when we’re gone. If the House fails to pass ENDA, it will send yet another message of support to those who would tie us to the post, whip us until we’re half dead and leave us bleeding, alone, under the Wyoming night sky. Every time a legislator expresses a “personal belief” that the “homosexual lifestyle” is wrong, it sends a message to those who would target us that it’s okay to do so, because we are just shy of human. And these legislators need to start seeing the direct line between the denial of civil rights and the violence that inevitably follows, as one group is able to treat the other as Other.

That’s the depressing part. But last night, at the sold-out performance of “The Laramie Project,” there was also a message of tremendous hope. This play was performed by high school teenagers. Kids who, judging from the wonderful panel discussion that took place post-production, clearly believe in its message, who see their responsibility to promote not just tepid tolerance, but genuine, heart-felt acceptance, love and dignity for all people. Raised and educated within institutionalized religion, they believe that delivering this message is part of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. Estelle

This is our saving grace. A new generation is coming—one that neither understands nor condones my generation’s bigotry and callousness. These children will inherit our earth. If we let them, they just might save it for us all.

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  1. Matthew Shepard’s murder sent a shock through the queer community and we all remember his name. The documentary, the play, the countless funds and foundations sparked in his name that go to queer youth. That is all good and needed. However, most people will have to google “Islan Nettles” to even know who I’m talking about.

    Yes, we are 15 years from Matthew’s murder. But in 2013, 3 trans women have been murdered already (that we know about). So while ENDA is certainly needed, some of us are still there in 1998 where disclosure means violent death.

    Not being fired from a job is great, but first we all need to arrive at that job in one piece.

  2. Ethan, you are 100% right. Working is, sadly, a luxury for many of our trans brothers and sisters, who, simply by seeking to be whole, integrated, authentic individuals, put themselves in harm’s way every day, and they have long been on the front line of the LGBT community’s battle for equality and freedom. Islan Nettles, may she rest in peace, has yet to receive even the first steps toward justice. And you’re right that ENDA won’t stop the continued violence toward trans men and women. We need legislation that specifically protects transgender individuals from vicious hate-based attacks. And we need much more conversation around this, both within the LGBT community and outside it, so that fewer people who fear and hate difference are able to justify their violence, to themselves and in court. Thank you for bringing this up, Ethan. It should have been in the above piece.

  3. Does that “gay panic” defense work for women who receive unwanted sexual advances from men? I’m guessing “no.” Awesome post. Thank you.

  4. Sarah, exactly. As a gay woman, I don’t have the option of claiming “hetero panic” if I kill a guy who hits on me. Personally, I believe that’s because the transgression is really about gender rather than sexuality. If a man hits on another man, he is treating him (if you follow this warped logic) like a female. He is feminizing him. That is the biggest sin of all. Whereas a man hitting on me is doing exactly what he should be doing, asserting his own masculinity and defining my femininity for me. It’s a wonderful culture we live in. Sigh.

  5. I choose to look at the next generation with hopeful eyes as you do, but it’s not so easy, unbearable even, knowing that people are capable of such cruelty. I am grateful that the story of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard lives on in plays and films and articles like yours. We need to continue to shine a light on such ugly hatred in order to make change – slow as it is.

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