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.
The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me a
box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
I’m most definitely not a recording engineer, and I get pretty impatient with the edits, so it’s messier than I’d like it to be. But I’m trying not to let my perfectionism about my spoken word get in the way. Thanks for the request, Viviane – happy to oblige.
I recorded audio for this piece, download the mp3 if you’d like to hear me read it.
“I really like the way you fuck me.”
“I’m not fishing, really, I don’t mean it like that – I’m genuinely curious – what do you like?”
It’s slow. Soft and slow, a slow steady build which means I am ready for more before you give it to me: a rarity, precious, because I open so rarely.
A desperation in my pelvis, my cunt, to be filled, to be broken down, to be taken apart into molecules and slowly put back together.
Then there’s that feeling of opening. Desperate, again, a desperate opening, something becoming wide and hungry.
And it’s all so slow and steady. So rock-steady, so solid. Makes my heart burst in my chest and I want to cry out, beg, ask for more, please, please, more, deeper, harder, faster, more, make me feel. I try to bite my tongue, here in this space, try not to let the desperation show. It seeps through the cracks of my eyelids and fingertips anyway. I know it is not hidden. I cannot quite access it with my voice, yet.
Instead, this is what my voice does: whimpers. Moaning with every exhale because my body is at such a vibration that the mere passage of air through my lungs and throat and vocal chords and mouth will exert sound. I cannot stay quiet. Oh oh oh at the very least and then there’s low hums of sound like ohhmmm and I remember what my yoga teacher used to say about the sound of the universe spinning and I feel my heart in orbit. I feel my atoms in orbit and I’m distilled down to the very sources of me, pooling on this bed, this floor, leaning against this wall, wherever, and you’re watching my eyes and I can feel the way you look through me, into me, and I think, this is what it feels like to be seen and it’s beautiful.
I like the way you surprise me with dominance, with force, with a sting or slap or bite. I love the rings of teeth marks on my biceps and inner thighs, the marks you’ve left, they’re fading now and I wish they wouldn’t, I wish they would always be there, wish for layers and layers of these bruises in different shades of yellow and blue and purple and the tender pink not yet deepened into black. I wish I could point to each one and remember the many days it took you to put them there. One a day for a week. For a month. A new way to tell time, a calendar on my arm.
It is not a threat to my masculinity that you wear a cock. That you fuck me with it. It has been, it could be, but you make me feel so boyish, despite your palmfulls of my breasts and twists of my nipples and the ways you say “oh I love the curves of your body,” and I know you mean the femininity, my hips, the way my ribcage gently tapers, my round full breasts I hide with binding and jog bras and button-downs.
Despite this – or maybe because of this, maybe precisely because you acknowledge my very female body, maybe precisely because you see me, really see me, really witness my soft underbelly, the vulnerable girl side of me that I have worked so hard to overturn, override, you see me and acknowledge me, too, actually speak about my body – despite this, you play with my masculinity with such respect and reverence, and it lives in such a solid place in me now, that it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t contradict, it only affirms what I am already knowing in my body: the ways you witness, then acknowledge, then rejoice, in me.
Gently. With curves of her curled
like ferns nestled in wet moss.
A delicate fingertip like baby’s
breath, like a bluebell, like
a forget-me-not dangling
nearby. I memorized her breath.
The cadence, the rhythm. I
memorized her heartbeats, how
many pulses it took for her to turn
over, ask again in that language
of muscle for my warm thigh, my
open palm, my surrender into
the crook of her arm. She likes
the pillows. She likes the upper
hand where she can wake first,
start the coffee, start the morning.
This is the ritual of sharing a day
from start to finish, and I want to
replace her old red toothbrush, know
her schedule tomorrow, hear her mind
winding down before she – miracle! -
falls asleep in my bed yet again.
The fish needs to say,
“Something ain’t right about this
Camel ride -
Feeling so damn
Sex Without Love
How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other’s bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health—just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.