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Living Shepard’s legacy

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Today is the anniversary of an American tragedy that reminds us of an American problem. The problem of hate and intolerance still plagues our nation and our communities. Today – the seventh anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder – reminds us, especially those who would consider themselves on the side of an issue – sexism, racism, ageism, classism, heterosexism, etc. – that when thoughts turn to outward hate and violence, we must examine the roots of hate and commit ourselves to uprooting them in our hearts and communities.

Matthew Shepard is no longer here to tell his story. The living, with their own intentions, emotions and reactions now shape his life and legacy. Shepard was a brilliant young man; he spoke Arabic, French and German fluently, attended two years of high school in Switzerland, and wanted to go into international politics. He came from an affluent background and conveyed it in his stylish dress. He had family and many friends who loved him. Shepard had his own problems, which are for those closest to him to expound upon. He was gay and out since high school, and in little Laramie, Wyo., everyone knew it.

Shepard’s killers were his opposite in many ways. Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney lived in the low-income section of Laramie. Both young men – 21-year-olds at the time of the murder – had violence and drugs in their histories. They did not have a life to be envied like Shepard – no direction and little money, not even to buy their beer the night of the murder. The collision of Shepard, McKinney and Henderson is painted in so many lights: hate crime, robbery and drug daze. The brutality of the murder – Matthew Shepard’s skull was crushed and he was tied like an animal to a fence to die in the cold – makes my stomach turn no matter the motivation.

Hate is the only word to describe the aftermath of Shepard death. The defendants claimed “homosexual panic” as an argument. Anti-gay activists protested Shepard’s funeral and were present throughout the trial, declaring he was in hell. An active website “memorializes” Shepard by keeping a tally of the days Shepard has “been in hell.” This hate that is well documented is the type we need to be concerned with. People with no personal connection to either party felt compelled by their ideas to declare a murdered young person to be in hell. People with no connection to Shepard felt the need to interrupt his funeral, a thing so sacred that something as secular as traffic stops for mourners. What does this say about their respect for the dead and their families? What does this say about our society? Nothing good.

October 1998, I probably did not pay much attention to Matthew Shepard’s death. In those days, my attitude towards gay people was indifferent at best. I did not care what people did as long as I did not have to see or hear about it. Anything to do with the gay community was not my concern. In October 1998, I would not have even donned one of the infamous orange shirts.

In 2002, a young man was harassed at my high school. His classmates wrote a homosexual slur on him in the locker room. I do not know the orientation of this young man, but that does not matter – the act was wrong and it rocked my indifference.

New sensibilities probably led to watching films about the lives and deaths of young gay people Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena. Seeing those stories whipped me around quickly; the struggles of my sisters and brothers – even the gay ones – would be mine too. Also, my own background, coming from legacies of black men and women who faced hate openly from segregation and who cried over lynched and dragged loved ones like Emmett Till and James Byrd Jr., forced me to care and to be a straight ally.

Matthew Shepard was not perfect, a saint or a martyr. Martyrs choose to die to make a point, and saints are not around on the day-to-day. Shepard was a young kid like many of us trying to figure out this strange world. Young men cut his journey short with hate in their hearts.

What Shepard leaves us is not a “gay agenda” or simply another cry for another law to say that murder is wrong. Shepard leaves with us a call to take the hate out of our own hearts to make this nation safe for people to be themselves no matter whom they love, to take the hate out of our hearts so it is not permissible to defend murder with “homosexual panic;” to take the hate out of our hearts to give pause to those that would protest a funeral. To take the hate out of our hearts, period.

Kamaria Porter is a senior history major. She can be contacted at kporter@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.