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Five Years Later

click to enlarge Matthew Shepard
  • Matthew Shepard

It was a dark, cool night in October. A pervasive cold breeze blew across the plains and wrapped him in its uncaring mantle.

If you were to approach where he hung, you likely would have thought him a scarecrow grotesquely impaled on a fence post. As your eyes adjusted, the horror of your discovery would grip you with fear and you would leap back, looking around for the perpetrators of this heinous act.

Taking a deep breath, once more you would have approached. It was a man -- no, a boy. His eyes were vacant, his head was bloodied, gray matter spilling down his back from his fractured skull. Faint breathing could be heard in the silence that was the Wyoming countryside.

To this day you would revisit the scene you saw, wanting to forget but forever seeing the horror that unfolded in front of you that night. What could have been the cause of such brutality?

Was he aware through that night his attackers had left him on the fencepost to die? Was pain his final companion or was he, mercifully, beyond this last abuse? Were the tears that washed clean streaks through the blood caked on his face a mere autonomic response or were they a sign of the life still within his beaten body?

Society's misguided lessons

This Sunday marks the day that Matthew Shepard died five years ago after he was brutally assaulted in Laramie, Wyo. by two town ruffians, themselves victims of society's misguided lessons.

Gay people, pushed to the edge by an accumulation of hate and violence that had been heaped on them at ever-increasing levels of intensity in the years leading up to that fateful day, reacted as they never had. A chorus of grief and anger rose in unison from them, as it did from caring people everywhere.

This groundswell of grief and anger expressed the accumulated pain of a people long maligned, long abused and long injured by hate-inducing fear.

So, Matthew Shepard became a martyr. His death remains today a prime motivator in attempts to change the course of a society gone awry. His parents, especially his mother, traverse the country working to pass laws cracking down on crimes that are committed because of hate. The memory of the atrocities invested on him on that cool October night is often cited in justifying the need for a change in the rhetoric of the right that led to such an event.

Certainly awareness has been higher since. More and more gay people have become visible in order to counter the images painted of them by the haters. If we do not stand up and be seen for who we really are, we become, in the eyes of the general public, the stereotype painted by the likes of the leaders of Focus on the Family. Their stereotypes depict gays and lesbians as a threat to all that is good; as something to be feared; as something to be reviled and hated; as a disease to be cured.

Since Matthew's death, hundreds more gay people have been physically abused and killed, and thousands have been verbally abused and discriminated against. Gains are slow. In Colorado, where Matthew died, and Wyoming, where he was attacked, there are still no laws that give gays and lesbians added protection from hate-induced crimes because of their sexual orientation.

Congress has repeatedly rejected similar legislation and has repeatedly refused to pass employment nondiscrimination legislation that includes gay people -- even though more than 70 percent of the population supports it.

Because of the gift Matthew's death brought us, however, time is now on our side. Our resulting visibility, and the increasing willingness of our allies and friends to "come out" with us, propels society toward a more loving and inclusive conclusion. We will no longer be silent; we will stand up and be counted for who we really are.

Free from fear

October celebrates the process of coming out for gays and lesbians. Coming out is a difficult and, often, long sojourn for many of us. It, in itself, holds us captive to the fear we have of others finding out.

For me, coming out was the most liberating thing that ever happened in my life. Once I realized I am not what the haters in society painted me to be, my sojourn took a new and positive direction, freeing me from the fear and allowing me to take my place; to live a happy and productive life.

To those who believe they should "cure" me I say, I need no cure now. A cure was needed when I was fighting who I was, denying who I am. A cure was needed when I felt overwhelmed with the image I saw of myself through their eyes. Now, the disease of self-hate is gone; the loneliness is gone; the fear is gone. I am whole.

The religious right promotes "reparative therapy" to make gays and lesbians straight. We cannot be what we are not and love ourselves. Reparative therapy should be about helping people find out and accept who they are, not brainwashing them to be who they are not.

Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day. I call on those of us who have come out to stand up as beacons for those who have not. We are their hope; we are their role models.

Frank Whitworth is a Colorado Springs community activist. In 1995 he was recipient of the National Stonewall Award for lifelong contributions to the quality of life of lesbians and gays.

  • Five Years Later

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