Darkness & Light
Thirteen years ago today marks one of the saddest and darkest days in GLBT history – The day that Matthew Shepard was attacked, tortured and killed by Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney in Wyoming. 1998 seems like a lifetime ago – The strides taken by the GLBT community since then have been massive and fantastic. Gay marriage, civil union laws, including sexual orientation and gender identity in human rights’ and civil rights’ legislation and the gradual media acceptance with more and more inclusion of GLBT characters, television shows, films and more giving actual names and faces to what so many people previously feared have caused an explosion of sorts in the last decade. I couldn’t be more proud of my generation (it so makes up for the atrocious other things we’ve “accomplished”, like, you know, “Jersey Shore”) and the many generations that so understood activism in the decades before.
In October of 1998, I had just turned 13 years old (let’s not do the math – I know I’m young, or old depending on where exactly you, my dear reader are at :), and age is nothing but a number – Wisdom and love and what you do with those things are what matter of course). It was an interesting time as I was heavily in that awkward junior high school phase where you’re not exactly a kid anymore but you’re far from an adult, nothing seems to fit or look quite right and you feel so out of place and suddenly foreign in your own skin. I was always somebody that tried to maintain an awareness about the world around me, even as a sullen, greasy-haired adolescent. I remember the media, the articles and stories, that followed and the shocking, gruesome nature of the crime as more and more details poured forth after his untimely death.
Honest truth be told, I had originally figured out what “gay” meant by watching the most educational after-school programs such as Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, Maury and Sally Jessy Raphael. Obviously, the worst of the worst and the most asinine and obnoxious of the community was represented (as with every other minority) on these shows, but sitting cross-legged on the couch, watching a married man scream about how he wasn’t a “f-g” when confronted on the stage by the gay man he’d been cheating on his unassuming wife with, was when it clicked in my brain: “Oh. Gay means you like your own gender like boys and girls like each other.” To be clear, I wasn’t really allowed to watch those shows either but it’s amazing what an inquisitive thirteen year-old can find on cable television when Mom is working late or Dad is outside grilling dinner.
So, I had a pretty clear understanding of what “gay” was by then and I remember wrinkling my nose and not quite understanding why two men would kill another man simply because he was gay. Sure, I understood that Matthew Shepard was gay and that meant that he liked other guys in the way that guys and girls are usually together (remember, I was only thirteen here) but I couldn’t understand why that was justification for this hate crime. I saw the pictures of him in the newspaper and thought that they probably picked on him because he was small and skinny and maybe he was an easy target for their psychotic rampage. I truly thank my family for the way that I was raised because all I remember was utter confusion and not understanding why gay = justification for beating/torture/murder. A few of the kids at school, who probably got their opinion straight from their parents’ mouths, made mention of the fact that if he was gay, he was probably hitting on them and, in that way, he asked for what was coming to him.
Aside from the fact that that is a HUGE assumption to make in that he was hitting on them (believe me, I don’t know a single gay man that would go to some po-dunk, redneck bar in backwoods, Whatever The State and hit on a straight man. I don’t know a SINGLE one. And, to be perfectly honest, if I was single, you couldn’t pay me enough to go to some rinky-dink hetero bar and try to pick up a woman either.), I couldn’t justify it in my head then either. In my mind, killing someone is the biggest no-no you can ever do, the worst possible thing to do to someone, and a person would have to be coming at me with some sort of sharp object or be aiming a gun at my loved ones for me to even consider taking their life. Violence was not supposed to be the first answer you come up with when confronted with something that didn’t jive with you.
I guess I just didn’t get it because I wasn’t raised that way – I was raised to be kind and to love. I was raised with a family that taught me that no one is right or wrong because of things like race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or being a part of any other minority. I was taught to judge based on the individual.
But I digress – This isn’t about me. This is about the huge, amazing strides that the GLBT community has taken in the years since Matthew Shepard’s death. I can’t think of a single mainstream movie or television show in 1998 that had a prominent gay character (except for My So-Called Life back in the early ’90s). Now, I can name ten off the top of my head. Relationships are now being protected in the eyes of the law and if you hurt someone for the simple fact that they are a part of the GLBT community, you will be charged with a hate crime. Not to mention you’re a big fucking loser…Buuut I’ll stop there before I go on an angry tangent.
It is so unfortunate that something so terrible, so unthinkable and tragic had to happen but if there is at all a silver lining that I think he would appreciate from wherever in the vast, glittering sky he may be, it would be the immense progress that our community has seen since 1998. There are so many more strides to make, but sometimes it’s nice to think on and appreciate the irreversible progress that has happened as well. Republican candidates can sign whatever documents they want to outlaw love in the states that recognize it but they’ll never be able to turn the tides back to 1998 and narrow all of the minds and hearts that have been opened since then – Straight and gay and everywhere in between. Who ever would’ve thought that being a fabulous gay boy would eventually be IN? And he was so fabulous – Thank you, Matthew, for the inspiration that your legacy continues to give to the GLBT community and our youth all over the globe. You will live on forever through us and we will always keep fighting.