I think, perhaps, Matthew Shepard's death has struck me so deeply both because Matthew was attacked (at least in part) simply because he was different, and because he apparently held the same basic philosophy that I do. In the words of his parents:
"All of us who [knew] Matthew see him as he [was], a very kind and gentle soul... His one intolerance [was] when people donít accept others as they are. He [had] always strongly felt that all people are the sameó regardless of their sexual preference, race or religion."
"We know he [believed] that all of us are part of the same family called Humanity, and each and everyone of us should treat all people with respect and dignity, and that each of us has the right to live a full and rewarding life. That is one lesson which we are very certain he would share with you, if he could."
After his death, Matthew's mother said "Go home, give your kids a hug and don't let a day go by without telling them you love them." I always have hugged my parents, and told them I love them, every time I visit with them; and they do the same. Perhaps, then, I am so shaken because not only does Matthew's death remind me that I could lose my life, but my parents could also lose their child, and my friends lose me, to a crime based solely on the fact that I am different than someone else. My mother said to me "This prejudice and violence (which is getting more and more extreme...) is the only thing that frightens me still about your own transgenderism."
I have heard those inside and outside the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered (GLBT) community comment on how they deplore this incident. I personally believe that no one should have to die, be hated, or even live in fear for something done between consenting adults, and/or that hurts no one! To be persecuted simply because they are different, and believe, dress, act, or think differently than others.
After all, where does persecution of others for their differences stop? Would the religious extremists and hate groups spew their rhetoric so strongly towards other sects of Christianity or Jews? To Moslems? To African-Americans, Latin-Americans, etc.? To people with physical disabilities? To those with blue hair?
To those with blue eyes instead of brown?
[See Jane Elliot's experiment on racism]. Does the average person in our society support prejudice? If not, why hasn't the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (H.R.3081 and S.1529) passed yet? Where does this prejudiced line of thinking stop; and more importantly, how do we work to stop it? Please consider this quote in the 1940's from theologan
"...[They] came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me."
"...what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death... I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you."
I cannot remain silent in a world where there are still those who commit acts of prejudice and/or hate. Matthew Shepard has no choice but to remain silent now; his life was viciously taken from him. The murder of Matthew is, sadly, linked to the horrific lynching in June of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas; both were crimes of hate and prejudice. Even though Matthew and James cannot now speak out against prejudice, others-- including myself-- can and should still speak out. Speak out against prejudice and hate, whatever form it may take, whatever group or individual it may seek out.
I read in the news that on the day Matthew died, one of the alleged murderer's fathers, Bill McKinney, indicated Matthew had previously made a pass at his two assailants, so they decided to rob him in retribution for their apparent embarrassment. If it is indeed true that Matthew had approached one of future assailants, is that grounds for murder, or even simply robbery? Isn't a polite verbal refusal an appropriate reaction? Bill McKinney also said "Had this been a heterosexual these two boys decided to take out and rob, this never would have made the national news." I sincerely doubt that a simple robbery of a GLBT person-- nor anyone for that matter-- would have made the national news. Matthew was vicously tortured, far beyond what was necessary to simply rob him, and due at least in part because he was gay; that's what made national headlines (and I am still left with the question of why, to my knowledge, the media hasn't quoted someone with this perspective). In addition, even if Bill McKinney is partially correct, and the vicious torture/murder of a heterosexual person wouldn't make the national news and spark an outcry for action, isn't that a sad commentary on how desensitized we as a nation are becoming to violence and hate?
I also read news reports about the callous fraternity/sorority float in the October 10th Colorado State University homecoming parade that mocked gays in general and Matthew in particular; this happened near the hospital where Matthew lay dying. I went on to read, with some appreciation and/or surprise, the national press releases from the fraternal organizations involved, Pi Kappa Alpha and Alpha Chi Omega, deploring this incident and indicating that an investigation and/or corrective action is underway. I, and I believe many others, will watch with keen interest what will be the end result from this callous act.
On October 16, 1998, the day of Matthew's memorial service, a Kansas-based Baptist church lead people in anti-gay demonstrations at Matthew's funeral! That same day I called Senator Trent Lott at (202)224-3135, and Representative Newt Gingrich at (202)225-0600, to demand passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (H.R.3081 and S.1529). I couldn't get through because their phones were busy... I expect because of the multitudes other people calling in, doing the same. I will call and/or email the appropriate US Senators and Representatives to urge them to pass the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act. I will try again, and again, and... until my voice is heard!
As a final thought, please remember that you can make a difference in fighting prejudice and hate. You may feel that one voice may be lost in the hectic activity of everyday life; a distant whisper lost in the crowd. Even one voice may, though, cause others to stop, listen, and perhaps even lend their voice to such an important issue. One voice (and one vote) can, and does, make a difference-- particularly when combined with the voices of many others. Many single voices, raised in one chorus, produce a message that cannot be ignored!
Kimberley A. McNelis
My most sincere condolences on the loss of your child. I believe Matthew's outlook on life was much like mine, and I'm sorry to see the actions of a few very troubled people end his life and cause you, and the world, such pain. Love and Peace, Kim
On Friday, October 16, 1998 the hospital where Matthew died posted the following poem; written by Matthew's cousin, Megan Shepard. It was read at Matthew's funeral in Casper, Wyoming. It was posted there at the request of Matthew's family, and I repeat it here to honor his memory.
An angel with new wings
In a place a world away
Can once again begin to sing
God took him in his arms today
He blessed his soul with loving care
And took away his pain
His life story all would share
His memory on their hearts a stain
So young a heart destroyed
For a cause unforgotten
Another's mind deployed
The result a tragedy rotten
The tragic hero that's hard to find
A martyr with great courage
God's lamb in rare design
Never to be discouraged
Our love for him forever strong
His image will never fade
We'll meet him again before long
Temporary goodbyes we now must bade
Matty, I love you with all of my heart
I wish you only knew how much
You'll be happier with this brand new start
The world's hearts you have now touched.