A New Call To Action

By Derik Cowan

Last Night I found myself at sunset at the corner of Eighteenth and Castro lighting a candle and placing it in front of a new memorial. This memorial wasn't for someone who had been famous or noted for their humanitarian actions. Instead it was for a young man whose life had been cut short by the forces of hate. As I stood up, I noted that most of the faces around me were those of my fellow youth, some in tears, others angry, many, like me, a mixture of the two.

For me Matthew Shepard's murder is a wakeup call. Over the past year or year and a half, I've begun to get rather complacent in my actions fighting for the rights of gay youth. Part of this I suppose is that I'm growing older, and as I've made the move from school to the working world, started focusing on what I want to do with my life, and been exposed to a much broader gay community in which many segments are struggling for what is important to them, my life focus has changed. What was at one time important to me on a personal level has become less so.

Issues of housing and scholarship money for disowned gay youth are still on my mind, but no longer are part of my personal day to day experience because I'm no longer in school. Another part is also that I now live in San Francisco in the Castro, I work in the Castro, and as such have become very insulated from the real world in which homophobia can take a very lethal toll. Life is funny that way, when I was in school I was aching to get out so I could deal with the real world and face the facts of life that I didn't have to face in school, but now that I'm out in the real world, I find myself equally cushioned from reality.

A third part I suppose is that I saw so many advances taking place, so many schools starting up gay straight alliances, so many new gay youth groups, so many of us coming out at younger and younger ages that I felt the gay youth movement was making great strides ahead and there were plenty of new young people to pick up where I left off. Matthew's death shattered all of that for me. All of a sudden I was faced with a hate inspired death of someone who only a year and a half ago could have been me. How can I sit by and not fight when the people I thought would take up my fight are being killed for just being themselves.

Frankly, I see this murder as a rallying point for the gay youth movement. Yes, we've had some great victories with the Jamie Nabozny case and the passage of gay youth rights laws in places like Massachusetts. Yes, we are speaking out in forums like Oasis. Yes, we are gathering in local groups for peer support, and conferences like San Francisco based LYRIC's Young, Loud, and Proud conference are drawing more and more people.

But it's time for us to take our fight for equal protection against discrimination to the next level. I would love to see local gay youth groups, college GLB groups, and high school Gay Straight alliances across the nation get together and form a coalition and fight on a national level for the basic respect we as gay youth deserve. I'd like to see youth rallies and vigils in cities across the nation in memorial to Matthew. And if there is anything I can do to speed this vision along, I'll be there.

Until then, I'll keep my candle burning on the corner of Eighteenth and Castro.