Matthew Shepard 1976-1998
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Introduction

This is the introduction page to a 16-page memorial. La Parola attempts to address the cold blooded 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, and the regional and national issues and attitudes underlying this tragedy. This page is meant to be viewed in a browser frame. If you arrived here from WebRing, or another link or bookmark, and you don't see a complete article index menu in a left-hand panel, please click this link to our Matthew Shepard Index page to browse and read any page of the full article.


s much as I wish it could be, this article is not really about Matthew Shepard. Nor is it about what people remember about Matthew Shepard, nor what they say about him, or what they don't.

This article is only one person's attempt to give back something of value to that community which gave so much of itself to me.

 

 

 

Matthew ShepardI didn't know Matthew. Like the tens of thousands who talk of him, and the millions of men and women who remember and grieve, we didn't know him.

Matt was the gay 21-year old college student whom some youths took outside of Laramie one evening. They burned him, beat and pistol-whipped him, stripped him, and left his tortured body tied to a fence of sorts to freeze to death, or to die of numerous grievous injuries, whichever should happen to come first.

Some good Samaritans found and untied Matthew the next day and got emergency help. Matthew's fragile spirit clung tenuously to life in an intensive care unit for a couple of days. Then his spirit let go, and Matthew died, and we say that we "remember".

It is all that we know how to say, or can.

The real part of Matthew that was loved and cared for by his family and close friends until the day he died -- that part is not open to the rest of us, and that part never was open to us, nor should be. Death, foremost, is a private thing; it is a private, personal loss of the deepest kind in which we cannot share and about which we cannot write.

So what is it that we can mean when we say we "remember", and thusly bedeck the logos and the black armbands and purple ribbons upon the web pages and posterboards of the living?

A small schoolchild stops with a parent at the accident site of a schoolmate and, subdued and solemn in disbelief, leaves a tiny bouquet of red flowers in memory of the deceased. A national figure dies, and the flags go to half-staff. Mrs. Judy Shepard shed tears as her husband Dennis read a statement at Matthew’s funeral in Casper.

It is all very human. We do what we know how to do. The grief is understandable, and the nation understands too, for so many of us have lost so much. The Reverend Fred Phelps’ "God Hates Fags" group picketed outside the funeral in Casper, but temporarily these people and their kind are unimportant nothings.

Something much more important than respect for the living and the dead has been lost here.

What is it that we mean, when we say that we are remembering? For Mrs. and Mr. Shepard, it was loss of their son, and the many good things he stood for. For most of the rest of us, it is memory of a lost hope, a spectre that strikes us, again and again.

If you were not a potential victim, you would likely not notice that spectre, or you would dehumanize it into a statistic, like the number of fatalities resulting from a killer storm striking some far-off continent.

There is a monster loose in society again, the half-dead come back to haunt the living, like Phelps and his sepulchral band of perverts. How fitting that they should be publicly associated with every aspect of the death of Matthew Shepard, from the rhetoric and wrong thinking that killed him, right down to his funeral.

But that is not about Matthew Shepard, either.

Reasoned people will argue correctly that remembering is all about honoring a good, kind, decent person. It will be said that is about the honoring of a fallen fellow, and we will all try to focus on ways in which the name and cause Matthew can be said to live on, so that we can say that Matthew did not die in vain.

I cannot accept that a brutal and senseless death is not a death in vain. I can accept that it is our responsibility to help ensure that the good will and cheer he is said to have spread is not lost, and is not wasted.

Matthew died an ugly, brutal, sadistic and horribly prolonged death. He was not even given the dignity of death in fighting for a cause, as a soldier is said to place his body before the enemy and die for his country. Matthew died without cause or warning, while simply trying to live the daily life of a college student as best as he knew how.

The murder in Laramie had all of the analytical characteristics of a random killing, except that the perpetrators of this particular category of crime selected Matthew because his inherited biological makeup cast him as a member of one of many particular sociological clusters of people not perceived to be "protected".

In certain parts of Laramie, Wyoming, it is understood that if a person is offended by the existence of a gay person, or a black American, or perhaps an elderly Orthodox Jew or some person of Asian ancestry, well, it is not "OK" to break the law and assault them. But it might be socially tolerable to mutter "fag" or "nigger" or just spit on that person a little, to see if you can antagonize them a little and get them to act disrespectful.

"Disrepectful", here, it is understood, means any behavior that a person might find offensive.

Given that the other's very existence is deemed offensive in the first place, it is easy to see how some people, who were playing with half a deck to begin with, might feel provoked. It is easy to see how this could escalate, with this kind of mentality, into a little pushing, or hitting, just because they were beginning to become enraged by your typical "Oh please I'm a minority" pleas for mercy and cries of pain.

There are still folks in Laramie who would understand how a person might get mad and get just a little carried away. The victim struggles or resists, and more force is required to avoid losing face.

At first, it is just the bully, the gang, irresistably drawn to the fight they can’t lose. Then, finally, there is the problem of the victim who can't be allowed to testify, generating rage: see what you made me do to you. An unconscious victim can’t cry out in protest or pain while being kicked and stomped to death.

While nobody's condonin' murder, the broken ribs and bludgeoning and crushed cranium are all swept under the carpet as a "regrettable incident". If the perp had the good sense to throw away the wallet of the deceased, well, the police can just say it looks like the motive was robbery.

And this may indeed seem like an unfair thing to write about the good folks of Laramie, 99% of whom would say they're against this thing. While these kind, decent people might turn their back when someone shouted "fag" or "nigger" at a little 12-year child walking down the halls of the local school at recess, these decent folks of Laramie know you have to draw the line somewhere.

It would seem, to some, most particularly unfair to Laramie that this hate crime even occurred in their lovely western town, thus attracting so much unfavorable outside attention to a problem they didn't invent but only went along with. In fact, this same behavior is condoned and sanctioned in some quarters of Abilene, Mobile, Boston and San Francisco, not to mention within the Armed Forces of the United States of America.

Is there a connection?

In Texas a few months ago, the nation was momentarily galvanized when a black man was dragged to death from a chain tied to a pickup truck. I remember many of the details of the investigation from the press reports, but I could not remember the victim's name. I remembered a name something like Jasper Hopkins, which is a horrible thing to admit, for this was man who had a family and people who loved and cared for him too, and now he is dead, and it is as if his name did not exist.

I went to the web pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner and used their search engines. I did not get a hit on "hate crime", or on "murder", and could not find the information I sought. I do understand that the engines and technology are fledgling and the databases small yet, and I knew that the man I remember as Jasper Hopkins could not be forgotten so soon.

It finally occurred to me that, just as I may get topical information on the Matthew Shepard murder most quickly through links to gay web pages, there would be interest-group pages for the man from Texas also. I quickly found the home page for the NAACP, which proved to be interesting, well written, thoughtful and informative.

I came away with a bookmark for the NAACP site, but no name for the black man who was dragged to death by a chain from a pickup truck in Texas.

Web pages must be maintained constantly to remain topical and current and I have no doubt that the information is there, somewhere, or that it was there are one time before being archived off onto a remote storage device of some kind.

And I am frightened: do we have so many murders that we must cling to the little, yellowing clipped pieces of newspaper to say that we "remember"?

Yes, we do, and yes, we must.

In Memoriam

In June 1998, in Jasper, Texas, 49-year old James Byrd Jr., a disabled black man, died after three men tied him to the back of their pickup truck and dragged him along a rough dirt road. The killing was racially motivated. -- San Francisco Chronicle, Year In Review, Friday 1/1/1999.

The folks who put together the Matthew pages on the Internet have done a wonderful thing, but, in time, too, Matthew's name is going to fade. There will be other murders, other hate crimes, and I am fast losing patience with the whole approach.

"They buried Matthew Shepard on my birthday."

This was supposed to be the introduction and theme to a work I began almost a month ago. I cannot contribute specifics about Matthew to the gay or general communities, because I did not know him. I felt strongly that his name and death should not be forgotten, and I still do.

I felt strongly that if people understood the nature of hate crime and how it affects all of us, that perhaps they would feel empowered to do something about it, and I still do.

I felt strongly that this crime is not just about gays or blacks or Matthew or all of the names and all of the crimes whose names and locations we cannot even remember. I still do.

The only thing I have to offer either gay or general communities is a willingness to think "outside the box", and a propensity for trying to make sense of the senseless by putting it in a bigger perspective. The bigger perspective gives us a framework with which to think about events, which enables us to grasp the monstrosity of it.

Unfortunately, the big picture takes us away from the perspective of crushed skulls and lost loved ones. It makes it more convenient to dismiss an individual killing as some kind of statistical anomaly that will never affect us if we keep our noses clean.

The bottom line: if you or a loved one happen to be a member of certain specific target population groups, the chance of sudden unprovoked death or violent harm by a random act is much higher than for the general population. The chance of the offender being caught and brought to justice is also slimmer than for the general population as a whole.

And that is not a coincidence.

This thing, this piece that I have written to help preserve the memory of Matthew Shepard, has become a matter of profound dissatisfaction to me. I am terribly unhappy with it, and yet it is the best that I know how to do.

This thing of a writing, which I am now posting to the Internet community, is totally inadequate. I do not like writing inadequate, ineffectual pieces. I put in well over the equivalent of a workweek trying to make this article reflect the spectre it only tries to describe. Four thousand hours would not do the subject justice.

Matthew gave up not one workweek, but his own life, forever, for no greater cause than trying to live his own life as best as it is given to each of us to know how.

Matthew Shepard has been buried for three weeks now, and public memory of his death is already fast fading. I think that I need to put up whatever I do have to offer, in order to make a statement about what is happening in this country.

"Make a statement"? How the hell do you "make a statement" about the murder of a human being?

I would appreciate it if someone could tell me precisely what constitutes an adequate statement about the intentional, purposeless taking of life of a person simply because they fit certain genetic or cultural selection criteria and happen to be available to the killer.

This web site carries an important banner which says:

Matthew will not be forgotten. But it is also time to go beyond remembering the fallen.

I will remember Matthew forever, but this does not speak for the black man who was dragged to death. It does not speak for the annual thousands of murders that meet the legal definition of a hate crime. It does not explain why the other tens of thousands of murders, that do not meet the legal definition of a hate crime, are any less important. Nor, does it explain why they are any more important.

We must not address Matthew's death with halfway measures. It is time to put a stop to all of it, once and for all.

In partial answer to questions which must be asked, I have presented a philosophical, historic and civic context to a community that, by and large, is simply not interested in philosophy, history or civics. I have referenced a morality which says "do not condone or sanction prejudice" to a country which has still not gotten all of the laws against racially mixed marriages off its books. I have offered a legal opinion, about which I know little, and for which I have no credentials, which says that people who promote violence against others might, under certain circumstances, be held accountable for that violence.

None of this is worth spit, if it doesn't save lives.

This is a war about attitude. It begins in the homes and the schools, and in the churches, which in some way seem tied morally to this whole ugly mess. It is abundantly clear that these pages are in no way boosters of organized religion per se in America, but churches are practically the sole institutional custodians of moral guidance here. It is abundantly clear, just as the leaders of the churches most responsible for promoting prejudice have been saying all along, that the churches and schools and homes of America have failed.

The only bright spot in this whole business is that attitude begins with you.

There are at least six different definitions of the word "tolerance" in the dictionary. Some connote a begrudged abiding of that for which we have no natural affinity. Others connote a nonjudgemental reverence for diversity.

It is not important which definitions of "tolerance" have any meaning to you, so long as you have a means of distinguishing each person you meet individually, apart from the class or category to which they may happen to belong. Think "one-on-one".

But you do need to arrive at an implementation of the idea of "tolerance" which both works for you, and permits you to live in harmony with others. My approach is to "think outside the box".

The framework of this article is designed to present a different box, but it is still a box. When you find elements you disagree with, and you should, find out what it is you disagree with, and what you would do to change that.

No two mechanics use identical tools. I am asking you to focus on remembering that, no matter how many people are disagreeing on how to repair one car, there is still only one automobile. Focus on the problem and the facts, not upon the persuasiveness or popularity of the diagnostician.

Don't lose that focus. The issues here aren’t what the respective "sides" are saying and doing about violence in America. The issues are the violence itself, and our own attitudes about it.

Strictly speaking, I am neither idealist nor pragmatist, but reforming the whole of society is not the ideal even if that is as desirable as some say. The thing that needs reforming is the law, a simple, practical matter of an equal protection clause with teeth.

I think it is eminently fair and practical that we do not ask yet another generation of human beings to wait an entire human lifetime or so, while we dismantle racially and culturally stacked institutional decks with precedent law that scarcely exists.

There are no precedents, and there is only one human lifetime per human.

In the dark article called "Black Elk Speaks", I wrote of the extermination of the people and culture of the Native American Indian, and its parallels for our more modern culture, which I see as at war with itself. I wrote of minority pitted against minority, all of us artificially divided into splinter groups beyond count.

I keep coming back to my analogy of us all arguing about who is going to bail out the boat, while the boat is inexorably sinking.

As argument why we should all band together to defend common rights, I wrote the cautionary advisory that "in the long run, we are all Indians". I haven't changed my views on that.

In my twenties, for reasons far beyond the scope of this particular article, I felt that I had been born into a world to which I didn't fully belong. Some of you will know exactly what feeling I am talking about, while, to others of you, it wouldn't matter.

I didn't understand why we should be expected to have the patience and good citizenship to endure waiting for changes and reform that may take more than one human lifetime to accomplish. It was at the ripe old age of twenty that I discovered that forever is finite: we only have one lifetime.

I have seen remarkable social progress in that time, and technological marvels beyond count, and it is no longer so much of a rarity to see the faces of young people of color, or within the gay youth community, that are free from pain and fear and resentment.

Somewhere before my own shattering self-realization that "gay" had all along been a "we" thing and not a "them" thing, something else critical had already happened: my careful constructs began to unravel about the pre-existing equal rights of the black person, the hispanic person and other minorities.

There is nothing like experience, and walking a mile in another person's shoes, to see that there is a huge though unwritten difference.

None of us can afford to wait until all of you have walked that mile. When and if that happens, it will already be too late.

When you’re twenty, you’re entitled to believe that unequal justice for minorities could not possibly be happening in the United States of America.

After reading for three decades about the lynchings, beatings, false arrests, shootings, murders and cross-burnings, if you still don’t believe we have a pattern and a problem, that’s not even denial, that’s complicity.

That it took so long to see what others had been telling us is not surprising. My first reaction of discovery was anger: "they" had lied to us. While it is true that much of an entrenched bureacracy in Washington D.C. is still in denial, I don't know about anyone else, but I had lied to myself.

Justice is not blind in the United States of America, and never had been.

So, this person, writing this inadequate introduction to this inadequate article, is looking back on all the changes of thirty years, and asking what difference any of it made.

There is never any way to put murder in "perspective".

Back in the '60's there was a slogan I particularly loathed:

"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

hanged a lot, but I am still the same person. I was never much of a joiner, and just kept on doing the right thing (as I knew it) as best as I knew how, which wasn't very good most of the time.

But I kept at it. Maybe that was enough. You don't suppose that's what the slogan meant all along, do you?

I'm not a relativist, either. But, if you don't like the slogan, make it into something that you do like, and can live with, and make it work for you.

Matthew Shephard was born on December 1, 1976, and he was murdered on October 12, 1998. The gay community can well afford to view this as an assault on the entire community, just as a black American is well advised to view cross burnings as an assault on all African-Americans.

We have to get past this. There is an identifiable problem with specific Americans being murdered every year because of who they are, and for no other reason on earth.

Matthew could have been somebody's son or brother, and he was. He could have been your son or brother, and maybe next time he will be.

Nobody can tell you how soon is too soon to get involved, and nobody can tell you what to do when you do it. You can wait as long as you want to, to speak out, when and if you feel comfortable with yourself in doing so.

It's your life. And maybe it's your son's, your brother's. You decide.

Alex Forbes
November 7, 1998

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