13 years ago today, Matthew Shepard died in a hospital in Colorado. He had been tortured by 3 homophobic bullies and left to die on a fence in a remote area near Laramie Wyoming. His death affected me at the time and Matt, and the memory of his murder, are with me every single day. For years, I had a photo of Matt on my office wall. I lost it in a move, but I'm going to put a new one up in my home office today.
On Justin Rosario's FaceBook wall, there was a discussion today on the efficacy of hate crimes laws. Lots of views were expressed, with most of which I agree. One view, however, was missing: the viewpoint of a victim of gay bashing. Here is that view.
When I was 14 years old, I was walking to the public library in Alexandria, Virginia, with my straight friend, Bill. We were walking along Washington Street, one of the main streets through Alexandria, the street that eventually ends at Mount Vernon, George Washington's home. Bill and I often studied together, and we were going to the library to do research for papers that we had to write for English class.
Right across from the old Woodward and Lothrop store on the street, two older guys came walking toward us. Bill recognized them from school, but I had no idea who they were. About half a block away from us, they started yelling at me, identifying me by the sweatshirt I was wearing. They said they had noticed me at school and that they knew I was "queer." They kept up this line of chatter as they approached us. I tried to run across the street to the other side, but it was Saturday, and all the shoppers were out going to downtown Alexandria in those says before shopping centers. The traffic was too heavy for me to cross. The two bullies got me by the hood on my sweatshirt and pulled me back to the sidewalk. They started hitting me in the head and face, and, when I fell, they kicked me. Bill tried to stop them, and they hot him, too. Bill went out to the curb and stopped a passing car. The guy in the car got out and told the bullies to stop. They gave me a few more hits, then stomped on my glasses, ruining them, and then ran away. I wound up with two black eyes and some bruises on my back, but other than that, I was physically ok.
I'll never ever forget that afternoon. I have never been as afraid as I was then, nor have I ever felt as powerless. After it all was over, I felt ashamed. Ashamed that I was gay and had caused this horrible incident. I pleaded with Bill not to tell his parents or anyone. I was afraid that, were his parents to suspect I was gay, and so prone to being attacked, they wouldn't let Bill hang around with me any more. I told my parents that two kids had stolen my glasses and that I had gotten into a fight with them to try to get them back. My dad was proud of me when I told him that story. Had I told him the truth, he probably would have told me to man up and stop being a sissy.
The whole incident reinforced my low opinion of my young gay self. In those days, it never occurred to me that I was in the right and the bullies were in the wrong. I felt I deserved the bad treatment. It also never occurred to me that there were other people who had experienced the same kind of treatment - that there really were other gay people in the world.
I never have told this story to my friends or family. I posted it a few months ago in a discussion on FaceBook (a closed group where posts are protected) in reply to a question about the incidence of gay bashing among the group's members. This is the first time, though, after 50 years, that I'm telling this story in public, so to speak. 50 years!
What happened to Matthew Shepard 13 years ago, and what happened to me 50 years ago last March, are crimes with greater impact than murder or assault. Such crimes send a huge message to all those who hear about them or witness them. They say that gay people are nothing. Worse than nothing. Gay people are dirty, despicable nobodies whose hunting is always open season because society is better off without them. It sends a message to every gay kid that their life isn't worth shit, and, if they persist in being who they are, violence and harm are their only true future. It reinforces the conviction of those people who don't accept gay people to continue their own form of violence, expressed by their rejection, hatred, and oppression.
Hate crimes are a separate class of crime. I know this for a fact. The crime is two-pronged. First, it's the physical attack and its physical repercussions. More lasting, it is a psychological form of terror that haunts not only the immediate victim, but also those who are like the victim.
This piece was very difficult for me to write because, 50 years later, the feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability, worthlessness, and fear all still are inside me and they hurt.
I mourn Matthew Shepard. I so respect Judy Shepard, his Mom, for her work to end the freedom with which bullies prowl the streets looking for people they think are gay and terrorizing us. I hope that Matt's death, and our collective memory of it, will put an end to this horrible American pass time.