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.