This letter was submitted to the Marin Independent Journal, the newspaper of Marin County, Calif.
Matthew Shepard is dead.
Beaten unmercifully while pleading for his life, his 21 year-old skull pistol-whipped to the point where doctors couldn't even operate, his brain stem damaged beyond repair, Matthew at last expired when his burned and broken body said "No more."
Only 5'2" and 105 lbs., last Wednesday Matthew stood shoulder-high to his alleged attackers, no match for their bare hands, much less their weapons. He'd met them in a campus bar, at the University of Wyoming, and left with them shortly thereafter. It wasn't until the next day that his barely-lifeless body was found, a cold morning in the 30s, his blood nearly drained.
Wyoming is ranch country &endash; wide-open land with wide-open skies, coyotes roam the countryside. Seen as a threat, ranchers will often kill one and hang it on a fence for others to see. It's believed this will keep other coyotes away &endash; a scarecrow of sorts.
That Thursday morning two cyclists stopped in their tracks. Passing by a ranch, they saw a scarecrow. It took a second and third look for the horror to sink in. There he was &endash; Matthew Shepard, cruciform body tied to a fence.
Matt was gay, you see, and his death a willful punishment. In fact, to some, he was worse than gay, he was open and honest, and proud, about it. How dare he flaunt his sexual orientation, how dare others think they could. So late that night, the warning was posted, a bill on a fence for other potential trespassers to see.
I sobbed when the news broke. Uncontrollably, in a way I never have before. Wondering how in a world in which I usually find so much goodness and joy, such fundamental evil can exist. Torn apart by the violent taking of such a young life by those who must only hate who they are themselves.
As an openly gay man, Matthew's death hit home in a very personal way. As the executive director of a national organization that advocates for gay youth, I was struck that this could have been any one of the thousands of teens and young adults we have worked with over the years. Worse yet, that it could have been one of the young men and women I have come to personally know and care for.
As a father to a foster son, who is also 21 years old and gay, I was horrified to think that &endash; God forbid &endash; this could have happened to my own child; God forbid it should have been anyone's son or daughter, for that matter.
We are in a frightening time. In the last couple of weeks, religious extremists have supplemented their campaign of wolf-in-sheep's clothing doublespeak, moving from print to television with the message "If you're gay, you can change" (and ostensibly, become straight and "pure"). The pace of their rhetoric continues to accelerate, and with it has come a documented increase in the number of hate crimes directed against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.
For a gay teen in high school, it can be especially frightening. In a landmark survey of gay youth published in March of this year, the following points stand out:
It's important to remember that we're not insulated from this in Marin, either. Just last month, at the beginning of the school year, Adam Colton, a senior at San Marin High School in Novato announced in front of a school assembly that he would be starting a Gay/Straight Alliance on campus. He received a standing ovation.
A few days later Adam was attacked in a grocery store parking lot by young men yelling "fag" and other epithets. Thankfully, the student body responded with nothing but support for Adam: More than 130 students (in a school of approximately 1,100) showed up for the first GSA meeting. And the Novato police are actively pursuing this case as a hate crime and a reward has been posted.
It's up to all of us to work diligently to ensure that the terrible acts that took place in Wyoming don't happen on our own home ground. And to protect our youth, the schools are one of the first places to start.
As parents and members of the community we need to work with all of the schools in Marin County to immediately implement programs designed to protect the safety and well-being of our children:
For Matthew, it's sadly too late. No one can give him his life back. No one can give his parents their beloved child back. And frankly, I believe that ultimately no sense can be made out of any of this.
But working together in Marin, as a community that celebrates diversity, we can help ensure that for all of our children, the world can be a safer and more welcoming place. And now is the time to take that next step.