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Some thoughts on Matthew Shephard

rifle

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I read Eliot’s masterpiece, The Hollow Men, and one passage always stops me:

And voices are

In the wind's singing

More distant and more solemn

Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises

Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves

No nearer -
Not that final meeting

In the twilight kingdom


I see that lonely, fragile youth tied like a scarecrow against that rough hewn fence, behaving as the wind behaves, and the wind singing as only it can, here in Wyoming, on a cold night. I know that’s not what Eliot was talking about; I teach that poem, but somehow that image haunts me anyway. I’ve driven along the crest of that hill and seen the lights of Laramie in the distance and felt the absolute aloneness one can feel there and the crushing thought that he was family.

I don’t often use that word, family, in its gay sense, anymore than I use Indian in its Native American sense. I look at a Native American and I can usually tell what tribal family he is from. Cherokees don’t look like Mohawks and Apaches don’t look like Cheyenne, so I seldom speak of Native Americans as a population. Having experienced prejudice as a Cherokee among the Ogallala and the Navajo, I recognize the inherent cultural and social differences between most tribes and am very reluctant to ever lump them together. Not all Indians live in teepees, mine don’t. Eagle feathered headdresses are not seen on every Indian, mine wear one eagle feather and go through a long ritual to be allowed to wear it. I also know that I’m not going to be welcome in a leather bar or a biker bar. There are almost as many subcultures in the gay family as tribes in Native America. And we don’t tend to be any more tolerant of each other than outsiders are tolerant of us. I do know this: Matthew Shepard transcended all those divisions and united us as no other.

There is a film by Tim Kirkman called Dear Jesse about the late Jesse Helm. Woven into the fabric of the notorious Senator from North Carolina is a brief appearance by the real Matthew Shepard. I cannot watch it without crying. He’s such a sweet, innocent child, out to discover a world, and it breaks my heart to know what the world has in store for him. There are some wonderful stage pieces and motion pictures and teleplays that tell his story, but I can no longer watch them. I see that image, those crossed staves in a field, behaving as the wind behaves and I have to turn away. I simply can’t bear it.

You see, Matthew Shepard could have been me or my husband or my son or one of my students or one of my neighbors or friends or someone down the road, someone in one of the states in which I’ve lived or visited or heard about. And the breath goes out of me and I have to lean against the wall because I also understand Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson could also have been in that group. Not me, of course not me. But that’s not true; bad choices, self-hatred, the wrong crowd, and I might, God help me, have been that violent, that cruel, and that angry at the world.

I hear that wind whistling through those crossed staves every day. It’s a part of my life here in the west; the wind, sometimes so dry and hot it barely whistles, sometimes so cold it howls and seems to drive itself through every pore. In Matthew’s ears the wind carried more than its own steady wail, it carried the animal grunting and groaning, barking and snarling, of his predators, and, because they were of his species, Matthew understood their sounds. They burned him, they pistol-whipped him, they beat him, they stripped him, they tied him to a fence and justified this to themselves by the things they called him. Matthew’s last moments of human communication were listening to Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson use those words we all hear every day, listening to them shrieking in the wind, rhythmic like the stabbing of a knife, pulsing like the pounding of a fist, searing like the touch of a flame. Everybody’s heard them. His assailants felt the words justified their actions. The words reduced the victim to something unworthy of living. The words enabled two grown young men to strike 105 pound Matthew eighteen times on the head. The words allowed them to leave him to die, tied to a fence, crossed staves, like a scarecrow, behaving as the wind behaves.

On Wednesday, the Matthew Shepard hate crimes legislation will be signed. It won’t take the image of him from our minds or our hearts, but it may save others. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, second among college students, and thirty percent of those are related to sexual orientation. How many of those face their last moments with hate speech still echoing around them?

Sacramento Police Officer Michelle Lazark was quoted by the Associated Press in her description of an assault in Sacramento, “It's a gay-bashing. Gay slurs were used before they commenced to beating him. I don't know if these guys were looking for someone or are just ignorant." August, 2008

“Get the fuck away from my car, faggots,” he told me. “Then he slammed a punch into my face.” Seattle, September 3, 2009

“Kafagolis and Kirkwood reportedly inveighed against the victim, screaming anti-gay epithets as they punched and kicked him, knocking him to the ground.” University of Cincinnati, April 1, 2009

The Matthew Shepard Act will not stop these tragedies; it will deter them; it will make their prosecution easier. Education will help. Remove the fear and much will go away. But they must also be disarmed. McKinney and Henderson were able to do what they did because they felt truly superior to their victim and words helped arm them with that self-righteousness. After all, he’s just a goddamn fairy, a cock-sucking little queer, an ass-pounding, fudge-packing faggot.
 

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Thnak you very much for that history lesson rifle. There are many in here who are too young to know who Matthew Shepard is. Even though they are now the same age as he was when he life was brutally snuffed out. Matthew lives on in our hearts.
 
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May we ond day live in a world filled with peace and love for all of humanity. Mathew Shepard was a tragic loss. I was delighted to see his death was not in vein and that his loss helped sponsor many hate crimes bills to protect our rights as GLBT citizens...

Mark this must have been especially personal for you living in Colorado... Take care and be well my friend.
 
My heart bleeds a bit every time i think of him. I was in ballet from the age of 5 Does that say anything to you ?
 
Matthew's mother Judy Shepard told us in the audience at the University of South Florida that she still gets grief from that hateful man who sent viciously anti-gay protesters to her son's funeral. She says that even years later, reverand phelps still sends her hateful homophobic emails and faxes to her office on a regular basis.
 
Obama finally signed the legislation today. I wonder what weird fish will be netted by the law.
 
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