It seems like the briefest of brief moments.
In reality, 12 long years since Matthew Shepard was murdered on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, have passed.
It’s reached the point where young gay men might never have heard his name, or if they have heard his name, they lack the context and immediacy that it has for people like me.
I could go back to those awful days, 12 years ago and rehash my emotions and experiences from the first moment I heard the news of his beating to the agony of his death and watching his funeral from afar. It was like a truck hitting me and even now, as I pause and reflect, I can remember so much in so much detail that I feel overwhelmed as I write this.
This isn’t the first time I’ve reflected on Matthew Shepard and what his death means to me. After doing it in private the first five years, I’ve done it in writing every year since I started blogging: 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | TQE Matthew Shepard Search
Last year I revisited Laramie for the first time in something like ten years. It was actually my second trip to Laramie since Matthew’s murder—the first time I could deal with it rationally, and it still stung. By my second visit the fence where he was found was gone and the area behind closed gates—so while I know roughly where he was found, I couldn’t actually be there.
But it was something to stand along Grand Avenue and stare at the land, then turn around and see Wal-Mart.
It’s hard to capture this feeling, capture this moment, and capture… well, capture.
So rather than spend too much time dwelling on this one moment in time, perhaps this is a good moment to reflect on where we, as Americans (even as an expatriate American) are as a country and society.
On the one hand I think we’ve made a lot of progress in 12 years.
Despite 8 years of Republican George W. Bush as president, support for same-sex marriage rights is steadily increasing and strong precedents in the courts are building a foundation that will bring same sex marriage to all 50 United States in the relative near future. I firmly believe this—so-called Christians cannot stop this from happening because the United States is a secular country whose constitution forbids the state from picking a religion. I would bet that same sex marriage will be legal everywhere within a decade—and resistance will be relegated to a few kooky crazy right-wing Christians, who will be otherwise irrelevant.
When it comes to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I’m guessing it will be gone quite soon. It’s a silly law that does nothing to enhance US security—for if we actually wanted to win, we wouldn’t be kicking out Arabic translators. Having gay and straight soldiers living together poses no threat to anybody—just as having black and white soldiers living together poses no threat to anybody. Anybody who claims otherwise is bigoted.
However it’s not all progress.
Right after Matthew Shepard’s death, his mother, Judy Shepard, made a public service announcement that directly addressed bullying in school—it was a disturbing and forceful PSA that made the issue crystal clear.
And here’s the thing: essentially I was bullied in elementary school. It didn’t stop in middle school. The assholes were also in high school—I still remember one teacher defending me against other ignorant classmates (he told them to be nice to me because they would probably be working for me when they got older).
The fact is it hurts. But the other fact is that I am often, even today, somewhat oblivious to both subtleties and big things alike—and I had (and have) the ability to develop a thick skin quickly and easily. It’s hard to offend me—so when I was bullied, it didn’t completely paralyze me, even if it did sting.
However a lot of people aren’t able to compartmentalize the way I am, and instead of being able to shake off the bullying assholes, it hurts them.
Which brings me to the fact that we Americans, as a country, as a people, and as a society, have just had eight people bullied into suicide:
- Justin Aaberg, age 15, of Anoka, Minnesota;
- Billy Lucas, age 15, of Greensburg, Indiana;
- Cody Barker, age 17, of Shiocton, Wisconsin;
- Asher Brown, age 13, of Houston, Texas;
- Seth Walsh, age 13, of Tehachapi, California;
- Tyler Clementi, age 18, Rutgers University;
- Raymond Chase, age 19, Providence, Rhode Island; and
- Zach Harrington, 19, of Norman, Oklahoma.
I value life.
Nobody should be committing suicide because of bullying.
The only thing more appalling than the fact that eight individuals chose to commit suicide due to bullying is that anti-gay bigots are indifferent to this news. Lobbyists have the temerity to suggest that these kids brought it upon themselves, that because they were gay that they deserved it.
We Americans, as a country, as a people, and as a society must stand up and confront bullying. There is no place for it in schools. There is no place for it on playgrounds. There is no place for it in the office—and as somebody who is an English language professional, I feel it is entirely appropriate for me to speak up when people use words inappropriately—like, for example, to describe something as “pansy-ass”.
People like me, who work with non-native speakers, and people who teach English, whether informally or professionally, must directly talk about these words and talk about how they affect people, when words are inappropriate and why. It is critical to take advantage of teachable moments and deviate from planned lessons if there is racism or homophobia to be combated. Not acknowledging that language and words can be used hurtfully only condones racism and homophobia.
We know that there are consequences to word choices—even tangential word choices. Some of the most hurtful words I’ve heard in my life came from people very close to me before they knew I was gay. Words that can be used to celebrate beautiful things were used in degrading ways—and, at the time, spun me into a funk and delayed my ability to come out to some sets of people.
And to those who dare disagree: You need to take an introspective pause and figure out why you’re unable or unwilling to confront these issues.
Life is precious, life is valuable, life should be preserved. Nobody should feel demeaned because of who they are—being gay, bisexual, or even straight isn’t a choice. Being masculine or feminine in behavior isn’t a choice. Having brown eyes or blue eyes isn’t a choice. It just is.
We need to celebrate, support, and facilitate this inherent and wondrous diversity within the species we call Homo sapiens. From past experience we know that it is this celebrating this diversity that advances us, that makes new combinations and new ideas ultimately improving the lives of everybody.
But I am not naïve enough to think that my rant against the haters in America and the world will make them go away.
So that brings me to the It Gets Better Project—put together by one of my heroes, Dan Savage.
Dan Savage is probably the most important gay writer in America today. His work as a sex advice columnist, as a sex advice podcaster, contributor to This American Life, blogger at Slog, author, and talking head has done a ton to advance gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights in the United States. I’ll admit that he’s not 100% perfect—nobody is—but he is often the loudest and sanest voice out there.
The It Gets Better Project is a brilliant attempt to bypass ignorant parents, ignorant churches, and backward schools by talking to questioning youths—people who are stuck in places where they don’t fit and where bully behavior is either ignored or tacitly condoned. These people need hope. They need to know that it gets better. They need to know that the four years of high school that seem like a never-ending eternity will seem like a flash in the pan in just a few years.
Starting with one very sweet video made by Dan and his husband Terry, there are now hundreds of inspiring and amazing videos at the It Gets Better Project.
It’s mesmerizing to watch them. And at times painful. Tear inducing yet hopeful.
Some of my favorites are below—but perhaps I should circle back to Matthew Shepard and Wyoming. Despite the fact that it feels like we take one step back for every two forward, I think we can say that progress has been made since Matthew Shepard’s death.
If I have any regret in my life, it’s not having the guts to come completely out while at UW. I know many others knew that I was gay long before I realized it and long before I completely dealt with it myself—but it being Wyoming, probably some of my friends didn’t know and I might have lost some along the way—but it would have been worth it.
Being a gay teen in a rural place, like any city, town, or wide-spot in the road in Wyoming is a hell of a lot more difficult than being a gay teen in a big city like Denver.
I wasn’t completely honest with myself about who I was until I was 22—but growing up in Denver I was able to explore on the side and spending summers in Denver allowed further, mild, exploration. This exploration is difficult, if not impossible, in most of Wyoming and places like Wyoming.
So if you’re from some place rural and you’re questioning, then trust me when I say, it gets better. Start planning now, when you graduate from high school, go to college—even if it’s a community college—and then move on.
You can get out and be out – and trust me, it does get better.
Matthew Wayne Shepard: 1 December 1976 – 12 October 1998.
Rest in peace.