Posted: 10/12/11 08:39 AM ET
October is very hard for me.
It’s not that the early autumn in Wyoming isn’t beautiful. If you haven’t experienced the crisp air as the nights come earlier each day, or the last few cricket chirps of the season that follow the brilliant orange sunsets, you can’t really know the peaceful, quiet contemplation this time of year brings those few of us fortunate to make our homes here.
But it’s those cues, these turns of the calendar pages, that remind me of the tragedy that autumn brought us 13 years ago, and start us reflecting on what our family, and our society, have learned from it.
Thirteen years ago this week his father, brother and I were at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., with our firstborn son, Matthew Shepard. He was 21, and dying. Just days before, he had been just like millions of American college students whose names are not known to the world — getting the hang of his new classes, adapting to a new campus, making friends. His father and I thought his biggest challenges were keeping money in his checking account and getting his homework in on time.
But here he was in intensive care, the victim of a terrible, senseless attack at the hands of two other young men who, at some point in their lives, learned it was OK to hate others for being different, to victimize them, to disregard their humanity.
Matt passed away quietly in the early morning hours of Oct. 12, 1998, with his family at his bedside. He died because of violence fueled by anti-gay hatred. For a lot of reasons, some of which we will probably never quite understand, the world had been watching, praying for him, and voicing their outrage.
October cannot go by anymore, and never will again, without us wondering what might have been, for us and for so many other families, if hatred of gay, and lesbian, and bisexual, and transgendered people, and all those whom others simply think might be, had been rooted out long ago.
In the painful months that followed Matt’s death, we came to understand a lot of things we never knew before: about hate crimes, and how shockingly many there were every year; how they are characterized by obvious signs, like excessive violence, and the denial that surrounds them; and how hard they were to prove, and prosecute, and appropriately punish, with sensitivity to the victim’s loved ones and the wider community.
We learned about the LGBT community and its long struggle for acceptance and equality. We learned how easily LGBT people could be fired from their jobs just for being themselves, how they couldn’t serve their country openly, couldn’t marry, couldn’t adopt kids in some states. And most of all, we learned about the fear so many otherwise good people had in their hearts about their gay neighbors, coworkers and family members.
We set about creating a legacy for Matt. He had always been interested in politics, human rights and LGBT equality — he had in fact been at a Coming Out Week meeting at the University of Wyoming on his last night. With the support and sympathy of the thousands who wrote us and the millions who were touched by his death, we decided to try to make a difference in his name.
Thirteen years later, the Matthew Shepard Foundation stands up for the LGBT community and its straight allies, in Matt’s memory. We are a modest organization, but we do our part and persuade others to do theirs, as well. We pushed — for a long, long time — for federal hate crime legislation that includes LGBT people. That finally happened in another chilly October two years ago — one more step forward. We go to schools and companies and community groups to implore everyone there to embrace diversity. We try to give young people hope, despite their parents’ or peers’ rejection of them, that they have a bright future. We keep Matt’s story alive and look to turn bystanders into activists.
It’s been such a long, sometimes tiring journey, but a rewarding one, as well. The coming out stories that young people tell me, slowly, almost imperceptibly, got better. More and more, the story ends not with a young person being turned out of the house, but affirmed, and accepted, lovingly. Every time I speak at a college somewhere in America, I am hoping I will hear another one like that.
Marriage equality is coming slowly, state by state, and military service has finally been opened to all, regardless of sexual orientation. This is progress. But we have a lot of work left to do, in employment discrimination, in family law and, most of all, in people’s individual lives.
We all have a role to play. We all have our story to tell. When we all finally stand up and demand equality, the scourge of hatred will wither and disappear. And maybe we can all have our Octobers back to enjoy for what they’re meant to be — a season to see, celebrate, change.
To see a timeline of events, click here.