October is a full month of celebration and awareness. It’s LGBT History Month, Headdress Ball, Come Out With Pride, Tampa Bay Internal Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, National Coming Out Day, Sarasota Pride and Volusia County Pride to name a few.
Amid the parties and fundraisers it is easy to lose sight of another yearly happening, the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard.
On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard entered the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming where he met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The two men planned to rob Matthew and pretended to be gay in order to win over his confidence. McKinney and Henderson offered to drive Matthew home, but instead took him to a remote location. Here they beat Matthew with a pistol, tied him to a fence and left him for dead. Eighteen hours later Matthew Shepard was found in a coma and bloodied, save where the trails of tears washed his blood away. His injuries were too severe and ultimately took his life on Oct. 12 at the young age of 21.
Matthew’s death has always hit close to home for me. Just two years before his attack, I was a 21-year-old student at a small, private, Southern Baptist college in North Carolina. Although I was able to find pockets of acceptance, it was clear LGBTs were not on equal footing. My attempt to start an LGBT youth group was met with great resistance and threats. Wanting so badly to have that gay connection, I can easily see myself falling for the same trap Matthew did.
It didn’t take long for my sadness over Matthew Shepard to turn to anger. I blamed two entities: politics and religion.
On the political spectrum,we start with the federal policies Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (1994) and the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) signed into law by then President Clinton. Although Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was designed to improve the situation for LGBT soldiers, it became a weapon for witch hunts in the military. DOMA sought to protect marriage as an institution between a man and a woman. Both policies sent a clear message to citizens that LGBT persons were not accepted by the federal government.
Congress was led by ultra conservatives who helped paint an immoral picture of LGBTs. When President Clinton nominated what would be America’s first gay Ambassador (James C. Hormel to Luxembourg), right-winged leadership was quick to discredit him. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms called LGBTs degenerates and morally sick wretches. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott compared being gay to being an alcoholic, and Senator Chuck Hagel argued that a gay person could not represent the values of America.
The political climate of 1998 facilitated the notion that LGBTs are bad, and it’s ok if bad things happen to them.
Religion’s obsession with LGBTs also played a role in LGBT hatred. I’m not speaking of all religious views, just the ultra-conservative religious views that are treated as if they are the only interpretations. Aside from its normal rhetoric, in 1998, 15 conservative Christian organizations took out ads in major publications promoting reparative therapy in an attempt to shame LGBTs into heterosexual conversion. I’m not suggesting that the murderers of Matthew Shepard saw these ads and then felt it was okay to beat him. I am, however, suggesting that unlike economics, hatred will trickle down.
Why do conservative zealots spend so much energy on LGBTs? Let’s assume that God exists. Let’s assume homosexuality is a sin. It is my understanding that all sins are equal, so why is so much time spent on hating LGBTs? If LGBTs can lose their jobs for being LGBT then would it logically be okay to fire an employee for lying to their kids about the existence of the tooth fairy? If a florist doesn’t have to provide flowers for an LGBT wedding, then can they refuse to provide flowers to wedding with shrimp on the menu? It sounds silly, right? It’s difficult to take religion seriously when it’s used against LGBTs because the arguments seem to have more holes in them then vintage issues of Playboy.
It’s important to look back on this 17th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard because we must use our past to gauge our future. Politics and religion have made some positive ground for LGBTs since the murder of Matthew Shepard, but have we gained enough? No.
Anti-gay discrimination and hate crimes still exist. New laws are being written to allow further discrimination of the LGBT community. Politicians are giving credit to Kim Davis. They are promoting the same bigotry towards LGBTs that was present in 1998, and they need to be called out on it. Although we have marriage equality, we do not have full equality.
Our community has had a great deal of celebrating to do this month, and I encourage it. I also encourage you to reflect on where we came from to make these celebrations possible. Get involved. Know your history to shape your future.