October’s Queer Activism

October 11, 2008  |  essays

On October 6th, 1998, Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming, beaten, and left for dead – because he was gay. He was taken to a nearby trauma hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, and died on October 12th.

I lived in Fort Collins at the time. I was not out, I was living with my high school boyfriend of five years. Nobody I knew was talking about it, aside from the brief acknowledgment in order to look away. There were protesters at the hospital. The Denver newspaper announced that he had died before he actually died.

I remember crying. I remember being so confused as to how this could’ve happened. I remember being terrified to come out in that environment, so I stayed in the closet for two more years.

Years later, after I was living in Seattle and came out and was building an amazing queer community, I saw Matthew’s mom Judy Shepard speak at my college. I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember a few things she said so deeply: “I’m just a mom,” she said. “I’m not an activist, I’m not a historian, I’m just a mom of a really great kid who died because he was gay. People ask me all the time, what can I do, and I always tell them: Come out. Come out everywhere, all the time. People discriminate because they don’t think they know any gay people. They don’t know that the guy they go bowling with is gay, that their office neighbor is gay, that their dry cleaner is gay. They think gay happens “over there” in big coastal cities. Until everyone starts realizing that gay people are just like them, discrimination will keep happening.”

I tell that to people a lot, especially baby dykes (or baby fags or baby queers) who are struggling with coming out. It’s our number one place of activism: to be who we are. To let the soft animal of our bodies love what it loves. It is not easy for any of us, but for some more than others, as there are still very real consequences to coming out and being out, not just with our families and parents (especially) but in our daily lives.

I was searching for some Judy Shepard direct quotes and came across this article from 2001, which relays more of the thoughts I’m trying to articulate:

Matthew came out to her at the age of 18, three years before he died. He decided in his own time and space when to tell his parents about his feelings on his sexuality and how that was important to him. After explaining how she and her husband dealt with Matthew’s coming out, Judy believes that “Your goal in life is to be the best and happiest you can be. Be who you are. Share who you are with the rest of the world.” Come out. Come out to yourself. Come out to your family. Come out to your friends. Be who you are and don’t hide in the closet of fear. Take pride in who you are through and through. [...] In closing, Judy illustrated her thoughts that if the corporate world of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals would come out and be true to themselves, their lives, and the world we live in would be a better place. Maybe Matthew would still be here today. ‘It’s fear and ignorance that killed Matthew. If fear is shed, the violence will go with it.’ Acceptance of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals would not allow fear and ignorance to exist as hate.
- Erie Gay News report on Judy Shepard at Mercyhurst April 3 2001.

Years after I left Colorado, when I was in Seattle and studying writing, especially formal poetic forms, I wrote an acrostic poem about Shepard. The acrostic is a form you’ve probably played with as a kid, at least – you take a word and make each letter in the word the first letter of the line of the poem. In this case, the assignment was to write an acrostic about a place, capturing both the essence of the geographical space and an event that occurred there. The title is a reference to the date he was attacked.

    MATTHEW 10:6 (Acrostic)

    Framed in thick oak trees, equidistant, streets
    Open to fields marching toward undisturbed horizons
    Regulation-height lawns burn with summer’s oppression
    Tearing boys from youth, from breath. Behind

    Cinnamon foothills, anger and ignorance sprinkle
    Obstructions in the north winds. An easy tragedy
    Laughs. Tail lights disappear, tangled in this inevitable
    Last night – train whistles whisper, keeping company
    Infused with ghosts. Plucked from a fence,
    No one blinks – hospital doors swing shut.
    Shepard boy releases. The world watches the moon set.


Aside from many personal responses to Shepard’s death (Melissa Etheridge wrote “Scarecrow” for him, among many other artists), there was also a fantastic play (and, later, film), called The Laramie Project which details much of the activism surrounding his death, the protesters (!) at his funeral (!), and the grace and joy and honesty and beauty that activists responded with. One of Shepard’s good friends, Romaine Patterson,  has written a great book called The Whole World Was Watching about Shepard’s death, their friendship, and her involvement in the subsequent activism, and is now co-host of a radio show on Sirius which I highly recommend.

Aside from tomorrow being the anniversary of Shepard’s death, October is National LGBT History Month, and today is National Coming Out Day.

According to Wikipedia:

The day was founded by Dr. Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary in 1988, in celebration of the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights one year earlier, in which 500,000 people marched on Washington, DC, United States, for gay and lesbian equality. National Coming Out Day events are aimed at raising awareness of the LGBT community among the general populace in an effort to give a familiar face to the LGBT rights movement.

I want to encourage you to do it. Come out, as whatever your identity labels are. Own them. Claim them intentionally and use them to your advantage rather than having them imposed upon you or operating from some place of stereotypes or limitations. Come out. Tell your family and friends who you are. Give them the opportunity to know the real you. Come out.

Like Jesse James quotes from Audre Lorde: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Don’t get eaten alive. Define yourself, create yourself, re-create yourself, play. Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

 

Want more? You’re insatiable.

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13 Comments


  1. In college, one of my professors had us read the Laramie Project, and to this day, it is one of the most powerful things I’ve read in my entire life. I grew up in an area very much like Laramie – where people are generally nice and have the mindset of “live and let live.” That’s not necessarily a good thing. Tolerance isn’t the same as acceptance, especially since people who just tolerate gay people also tend to tolerate gay-bashing.

    Excellent post. I hope that some of the closeted people who I’m sure read your website are encouraged to come out. :)

    [Oh hey thanks, I meant to mention the Laramie Project. I'll edit that in now. - ss]

  2. that's a really beautiful poem. thanks so much for posting it.

  3. I am not going to post my name name cause I don't have the right to out her, but you know who I am from my email address.

    Mystep-daughter is 15, gay, and in Grand Junction, CO. She has decided that she doesn't want to be gay and in the closet. It's hard not to assume she's gay as she looks and dresses very much like a boy. I am very proud of her for being so self aware, and I am glad she will not spend many of her teen years trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

    However, as a parent, I do worry about her safety when it comes to 'coming out' to her friends and her school. Last year she mentioned the fear of physical violence, so she is aware of the risks, but this year she has decided that she doesn't want to live a lie, especially because she has found someone that she cares for.

    She's a smart girl, #1 in her class. She is an amazing artist and she has a lot of self confidence. I'm so proud of her. However, I find myself being hesitant about her decision to come out to her friends and her community (apparently she fakes interest in boys and hasn't really developed breasts so she is still in that androgonous teenage phase). It's not a big town, and like I said, she was the one who has commented more than once last year about being afraid of the physical violence.

    I am finding it hard to support this decision because I worry so much for her safety. Maybe she has exaggerated (she tends to over think things) however I really don't know.

    I am so supportive of everything your posts says, I believe in live and let live- however, I'm also a parent, and I admit that I'm also scared for her.

  4. In answer to B: I was 15 when I figured out I was gay. I stayed in the closet with my beloved girlfriend (we are still together), telling only my parents and sister, until college. Being out may be more dangerous to one's physical health, but being in the closet is deeply destructive to one's soul. It takes away all chances of support, all possibility of connection with other people. To live a lie is exhausting and depressing. Many, many queer teenagers have a suicide plan — does she? Do you know?

    Your step-daughter may be full of self-confidence now, but after years of being in the closet and hearing you say how scared you are for her she won't necessarily stay that way. Instead of saying over and over how dangerous it is to be gay, why don't you get out there and make it safer for her? Safer for me?

    If you really love her, you have a moral obligation to do everything you can to help her. This means more than saying 'live and let live' — this means support and nurturing and protection and comfort, not just at home, but at school and in front of other parents and on the bus and at church. If you really love her, it's your life on the line too.

    I wish her the best of luck.

  5. Thanks for posting this. In these tough economic times, there will be those who will try to scapegoat us. We need to resist any effort to be used as whipping boys and girls.

  6. after I read what freedomgirl wrote, I would like to take this chance to tell anyone who might read this that if you do want to make this world safer for LGBTQ youth, I encourage you to find out if there is a chapter of GLSEN near you.

    I work with the Hudson Valley Chapter [www.glsen.org/hudsonvalley] of GLSEN and now, 19 out of our 20 high schools have GSAs [gay/straight alliances].

    19 out of 20 high schools are making it safer for kids to come out.

    and right now, GLSEN is doing a lot of amazing things, including a PSA campaign with celebrities telling people that saying 'that's so gay' isn't acceptable and to 'knock it off!'

    also, this week is Ally Week, set to be around Coming Out Day. to be an ally to LGBTQ youth is a big thing.

    so I encourage you to check out http://www.glsen.org or http://www.thinkb4youspeak.com if you want to help make a difference for LGBTQ youth and LGBTQ people everywhere..

  7. Victoria (thatfemmegirl)

    … I’ve been having a tough time lately and I really needed to read these encouraging words tonight.

    From my heart, I sincerely thank you.

  8. Sinclair, thank you for bringing this up. I remember hearing about the death of Matthew Shepard over here, in Sydney, Australia.

    My heart goes out to his family, and to anyone else who has ever come across such gross and brutal acts on another human being. And all for what? Because we love who we love…

  9. This is a lovely post and very well written – a few words stood out for me though and those were “baby dyke” and “baby fag”. I think this is a way that homophobia raises it’s insidious head and infiltrates every mind. The terms and labels are demeaning and we use them with one another.

    I don’t mean to nit pick but beautiful young lesbian or proud young gay man — are more empowering terms to use in reference to one another.

    Peace-
    janet

    [I know those words historically have some connotation of homophobia or "badness" in general, but they are terms that I use lovingly and endearingly, as someone who has spent a lot of time and energy and work on reclaiming language. In fact I would argue that my very definition of "baby dyke" is "beautiful young lesbian," and "baby fag" is "proud young gay man" -- or perhaps that "baby dyke" also means "proud young genderqueer gal who sleeps with women" and "baby fag" means "beautiful faery drag queen homo boy." There are lots of ways that these words have been used and reclaimed as positive, celebrational aspects of our selves, our history, and our community, and in no way for me do they connotate anything other than awesomeness.

    As long as we're nit picking, I might respond with a question as to why you would describe your "young lesbian" as "beautiful" when describing a "young gay man" as "proud" - phrasing that reinforces the notion that women are valued for their physical beauty and men are valued for their brains. And I might call myself out on why I didn't include "baby queer" in that list, too, as there are SO many more orientations than just dyke/fag. -- ss]

  10. Thanks Sinclair.

    freedomgirl said, "Being out may be more dangerous to one’s physical health, but being in the closet is deeply destructive to one’s soul………To live a lie is exhausting and depressing."

    Everywhere I look, all around my life, I see a mixture, an unsettled mess.

    My dtr's 3 best friends are gay and proud, coming out in various degrees over the high school years. I support them and their independence but honestly I (especially now that they've gone awaay from home, off to college), seriously, I fear for them, because of their youth, fragility and idealism, and the world in general…

    I remember when my cousin came out to me, we were maybe 20 years old. I didn't give a flip; I thought his sexuality had been obvious for years. But it was important to him to make that statement, to come out, and I respected that.

    My h is homophobic. I've always thought this fact was really weird cuz,

    1) otherwise, he's a really open-minded person,

    AND

    2) his uncle, who he very much respected professionally, was a (sad, drunk) closeted gay all his life.

    Such a waste. Such a big mass of fear!

    I think the comments immediately above, Janet's and yours, are important and interesting. I see SO many shades of grey in this stuff. I think we are all just one whole great big spectrum, all of life, everybody and anybody, just lay them all out, slice by slice, each person represents a unique combination of strength and beauty and pride and awesomeness etc……. There exists each and every possible permutation……

    and THAT is life, real life… Why do we try to hide it, categorize it into a limited few boxes…? are our imaginations so limited???

    I believe what the world/life is waiting on, is the day, when every single being is accepted and respected for exactly what they are, whatever combination of adjectives you choose …

  11. "'In closing, Judy illustrated her thoughts that if the corporate world of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals would come out and be true to themselves, their lives, and the world we live in would be a better place. Maybe Matthew would still be here today.""

    Yes, Mrs. Shepard. Gay adults have the responsibility to come out to help create a world where kids are safe and free.

    As a adult, corporate femme who travels for business and meets new people every week, that duty weighs heavily on me. At any moment I can manage to pass in my skirted suit. To avoid an awkward moment, I can say "I went to X restaurant on Friday night" instead of "WE went to X restaurant." If I just don't "feel like dealing with it" in a conversation with my seatmate on a transcontinental flight, I can simply change the pronoun when referring to my partner.

    But I don't.

    Because it's my obligation. Because an annoying conversation with a small-minded corporate stoolie is likely the only price I will have to pay. Because what happened to Matthew Shepard happened, and could happen again. Because when we are out, we force, one person at a time, normalcy.

  12. This really hit home with me, thank you!

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