Society and people are transformed by major events.
I identify transformational events by the stories people tell. People tell me when, where, and how they heard the news that something transformational happened and what was different afterwards, even if the changes seem trivial now. These shared experiences help define generations and unite otherwise diverse people.
In the States, my parents’ generation was transformed by the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s assignation, Neil Armstrong on the moon, and Richard Nixon resigning. They talk about with incredible detail what they were doing when the news broke, how it changed life, and how for a few moments, all society fixated on one single thing.
One of my administrative assistants talks about November 9, 1989, with startling detail—and her experiences after the wall fell with going up and seeing West Berlin in person. Reunification is an experience that defines a generation of Germans, both East and West.
For my American generation, the first shared experience was the Challenger explosion, taking with her teacher Christa McAuliffe. Even though the space travel was old hat by 1986, for me the space shuttle was something immensely special and awe-inspiring; the era when I followed space news and Star Trek intensely. Today I don’t give space or Star Trek a second thought. It’s amazing how much passion one can have for something as a child and how passionless one feels about it as an adult.
Another day that I remember quite clearly is September 11th—because of afternoon plans (ultimately unfulfilled), I’d parked in a different spot on campus and when I got out of my car, the local NPR station was playing its pretentious normal morning crap. During my short ten minute walk, the world changed. By the time I got to the office, every TV was on, the second plane was moments from hitting, and somebody made a joke that was, in retrospect, wholly inappropriate, but lacking sufficient information, mildly amusing. September 11th was unusual that not only was it a shared American experience, but it was a shared global experience, affecting individuals, in different ways, the world round.
However, not all shared experiences are shared by society-at-large. Sometimes experiences are shared by population subsets, galvanizing people. Certainly for queers coming of age in the late 90s, Matthew Shepard’s brutal beating and subsequent death was a massive shared experience, complete with candle light vigils around the world, and a riot in New York City.
Other than Matthew Shepard’s family and friends, I doubt many had similarly intense personal and emotional feelings.
It was an awful way for my alma mater, the normally quiet, friendly, and unnoticed University of Wyoming, to explode onto the radar of national and global media. Four months earlier I was at UW where I’d worked closely with Matthew Shepard’s advisor. I knew the people being interviewed on television. I walked across the campus that reporters were now disparaging. There were so many weird similarities that although it wasn’t me (and never would have been me), it felt like it could have been me. My innocence was shattered, as was the belief that it only happened to other people.
It hit so close to home that I fell.
I recall quite clearly, and with startling detail, how I learned and came to grips with Matthew Shepard’s brutal beating and its immediate effect on me. Sitting at my office computer, the stories about somebody being attacked in Laramie, Wyoming were vague. The innuendo implied gay bashing. I remember having a severe out-of-body experience—and being unable to cope with everything and anything, once my impressions were confirmed.
Thankfully the Disenchanted Youth, among others, helped break my fall.
That didn’t stop me from, and I mean this quite literally, crying and crawling into my closet, where for some reason, surrounded by my wardrobe, shoes, spare blankets, and the like, I felt a bit safer than elsewhere in my flat.
I remember how it forced me to come out, more rapidly than otherwise planned, because it affected my ability to work and I had to explain why I wasn’t functional.
I remember having an intensely vivid dream in which Matthew Shepard came and spoke to me personally.
Like most people experiencing a traumatic event, eventually I came to terms with it. I sorted the information and feelings, storing that information and those feelings away, letting them become a part of the fabric of me, rather than letting it define me.
And so it is this way each October, when I pause and reflect. I learned a lot of positive lessons through Matthew Shepard. It’s not to say I wouldn’t be the person I am today without him, but because of him, I am further along. I’ve expanded upon this in the past (in blog terms see 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007), exploring how he made me a better teacher and person. Toward that end, I am deeply grateful.
But it is always a bittersweet feeling.
Unsurprisingly, each time I explore these feelings, I end up feeling melancholy and ultimately I arriving at the same conclusion.
To this day, I wish I didn’t know Matthew Shepard’s name.
*1 December 1976; †12 October 1998