Fifteen years ago today, a young man took his bicycle for a ride just outside of Laramie, Wyoming. This was not an unusual occurrence. But today would be different. On his ride, he discovered what he at first thought was a "scarecrow" or a "Halloween trick" but was actually the body of college student Matthew Shepard. Matthew had been beaten and left for dead.
Because he was gay.
Two young men took him to an isolated spot, tied him to a fence, and beat him.
Because he was gay.
Matthew was taken to the hospital where he never regained consciousness and died several days later. His mother, father, and brother by his side. The two young men who plead guilty to his murder received plea bargains with the consent of Matthew's family and will spend the rest of their life in prison. They have since broken portions of that bargain and spoke out in the media, actually changing their story several times. However, their original confessions, attempted use of the "gay panic defense" and original stories of witnesses, etc all claimed that Matthew died for one reason. McKinney and Henderson didn't like gay people.
I'll confess, that October that Matthew died, I didn't pay a ton of attention to the story on the news. I saw pictures of memorials, news reports, speeches, etc. But I was in Georgia. Mother of a two year old and a three year old. I vaguely remember shaking my head at the hate in the world but then went about cooking dinner, taking care of my family, and getting ready for work the next day.
It wasn't until 13 years later, while at Newnan Theatre Company, hanging out with the cast of the Laramie Project, a play that details the murder of Matthew and it's impact on those involved as well as the community of Laramie, Wyoming that the story of Matthew really began to impact me.
I began to research. I read Judy Shepard's book "The Meaning Of Matthew" and cried as she talked about losing her son. I became more familiar with the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the work they do to "Erase Hate". I talked to the kids in the cast and heard their stories of how their families reacted to their coming out or bringing gay friends over, their thoughts on Christians who constantly clobbered the LGBTQ community.
Matthew's life...and death...began to have meaning for them and for me.
And even fifteen years later, with the hate crime bill old news, states approving marriage equality, etc. Matthew's life and death continues to have meaning. Hate crimes are increasing in New York. Last week approximately 20 football players from Ole Miss attended a performance of The Laramie Project and interrupted the play with taunts and homophobic slurs. And people in my neighborhood still unthinkingly use the word "fag" in incredibly derogatory tones.
It is time that we take the Meaning of Matthew and apply it to our world and the world around us. I don't care if the group of people you hate are homosexuals or the Republican Party...hate is never the answer. It is time to understand that all people deserve dignity and respect. It is time for Christians to stand up for the LGTBQ community because regardless of whether you approve or not, you are commanded by the one you call Savior to love them.
This week, as Matthew's family and friends face a tough anniversary. As they mourn the loss of someone they held dear. As the town of Laramie remembers...
Let's do our part to "Erase Hate". To make the meaning of Matthew's life more about the love he knew than the prejudice and anger that took his life.
Here's some ideas:
1) Check out the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Give a donation in Matthew's memory.
2) Make a NALT video.
3) Get involved in an organization that supports LGBTQ youth. For Atlanta people, there's Lost N Found (homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth in Georgia). There's also Forty To None and the Trevor Project.
4) Research: go see a production of The Laramie Project or read the script. Also, read Judy Shepard's book the Meaning Of Matthew.
5) Do a small kindness to someone. Someone you probably wouldn't normally reach out to. Take time to write an email or note and let Judy Shepard know you were thinking of her and Matthew when you did it (send them to the Matthew Shepard Foundation).
6) Examine yourself. If you know you are prejudice against a group of people, start taking steps to change it. You'd be amazed what building relationships would do to your mindset.
7) In the play, The Laramie Project (and therefore in real life), the hospital director reads a statement from Judy Shepard where she tells everyone "Go home and hug your children" So, go home...and hug your children.