10.13.11 Editor’s Desk

By : Steve Blanchard
Comments: 0

SteveBlanchardHeadshotIn October 1998, the world first learned the story of a young college-aged man who was brutally attacked, tied to a fence post and left to die in the cold Wyoming prarie. The bicyclist who found Matthew Shepard clinging to life nearly 18 hours later was later quoted as saying the bloodied 21-year-old appeared so lifeless that he thought the young gay man was a scarecrow.

The story horrified the nation, inspired a dramatic play and spawned the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act that finally saw a presidential pen to paper 11 years later.

Time has a way of easing pain, diluting shock and erasing memories. It’s easy to forget about the violent crime perpetrated against the man so many people described as intelligent, inspiring and sweet. Countless young LGBTs born since that October night have reached their teen years, not knowing the overwhelming sorrow and rage that accompanied the news of Shepard’s murder. They are no different than those children who have been born since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. We forget there are those among us who did not experience the tragedy firsthand.

The crime against Shepard was pointless and tragic, yet it galvanized the nation specifically the LGBT community and our allies to stand up and demand protections from those who target us specifically because of our sexual orientation or gender identity.

Shepard died from his wounds on Oct. 12, 1998, five days after he was lured to that barren, deserted area of Wyoming. The news media covered the story in detail, including the trial and conviction of his two attackers.

But that hate crime against the college student was not the first attack on a gay man in the country and it certainly wasn’t the last. Ryan Keith Skipper was beaten and murdered in an eerily similar way right here in Florida in 2007.

Shepard’s murder, however, was the crime that we would not let anti-gay crusaders push behind closed doors. Through his death, Shepard gave us a weapon to not only prove the existence of anti-gay hate, but to combat it.

Since those early days following the attack, we have become more complacent than we should. So much so, that there are online commentaries about the relevance of Shepard’s attack compared to, say, the Stonewall riots or the 1987 fight in the LGBT rights movement. It’s like debating whether the chicken or the egg is more important in the poultry industry it’s a waste of time and energy. It’s the combined effects of each milestone that creates the whole spirit of equality that is finally gaining momentum in our country.

The year Shepard died, I was in the first semester of my senior year at the University of Missouri. Like most college students, I thought the world revolved around me, my studies and the inner turmoil surrounding my own sexuality. Sharing the secrets of my same-sex attractions, especially with my family, tied my stomach in knots, distracted me from school work and led to a substantial number of sleepless nights.
More fear was injected into my life when I heard about Shepard’s murder. If such a horrific end could befall a man who was only four months older than I was and had the support of his parents, what horrors could my own future hold?

Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve fantasized about going back in time, sharing a drink with the much-younger-me and telling him about the successes in my life. I’d share that although my parents would never fully embrace me as a gay man, but they’d learn to respect me. I’d offer that religion is a practice used by too many to condemn others, when it’s really our spirituality with which we should concern ourselves.

And I’d let my much-younger-self know that I would be more involved in LGBT issues than I ever imagined, thanks to my involvement with this newspaper.

As we continue to reach milestones in our march toward equality, we can’t forget the struggles we’ve seen and those we’ve lost along the way.

Matthew Shepard was an advocate for equality who would have turned 35 on Dec. 1, 2011. If only he were around to celebrate our milestones with us.

Share this story: