One thing I forgot to note last month is that in addition to October being gay and lesbian history month, it is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The statistics for women getting breat cancer are extremely too high, and early detection is the best way to treat it. So, I urge all of our female readers to take the time to either get a mammogram, or at the very least perform a self-test. More information can be found at the Pink October Web site. Make this part of a potential life-saving routine you will do on a regular basis.
As you might expect, the death of Matthew Shepard hit Oasis' staff and readers head-on. I first learned of his attack the night before National Coming Out Day, and the impact of his subsequent death can be found everywhere in this issue of Oasis. For many of our readers, this was their first run-in with someone so young being so brutally beaten because they were gay. For me, it brought back memories of Allen Schindler.
22-year-old Allen R. Schindler Jr. was serving in the Navy in Okinawa, Japan when he was brutally murdered by his shipmate, Terry Helvey, on October 27, 1992. Every internal organ in Schindler's body was destroyed by Helvey. Schindler's mother, Dorothy Hajdys, could only identify her son by the remains of a tattoo on his arm. The medical examiner compared Schindler's injuries to those sustained by victims of fatal airplane crashes. Helvey is now serving a life sentence, although he could be eligible for parole as early as 2002 (more info on Schindler can be found at the Servicemember's Legal Defense Network Web site)
Schindler's death was the first time I saw how brutal anti-gay hatred could be. Not coincidentally, Schindler died shortly after newly-elected President Clinton broke his first promise to the gay community and did not sign an executive order allowing gays to openly serve in the military. What Clinton was effective in doing was to create even more of an atmosphere of hatred toward gays in the armed services, and his subsequent "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy has led to more anti-gay witchhunts than ever before.
But parallels do exist between Schindler's and Shepard's deaths, as both happened in the midst of an atmosphere of intolerance. Shepard's death occurred on the heels of the religious right stirring up anti-gay sentiment, Trent Lott showing the country that even half-wits can eventually rise to great power, and national advertisements telling gays and lesbians they can change and be "normal."
I remember walking on the Mall in Washington D.C. during the 1993 March on Washington. As I approached the stage, Schindler's mother spoke to the crowd. People were crying as she filled the air with her emotional re-telling of her son's painful death. I had tears streaming down my face as I kept walking closer. She was then joined onstage by names I knew from the news, Keith Meinhold, Margarethe Cammermeyer, Joe Steffan... people whose stellar military careers were ended because of their sexuality. I even carried an Uncle Sam poster in the march, supporting a right I would never, ever desire to do myself. But he was my age, and he was killed for being the same as me.
I guess that's why I wasn't as shocked by Shepard's death. The e-mail I got from our readers and staff were of a different variety. For many of them, this was their first encounter with someone their own age being savagely killed for being gay. And although I try to be an optimist, Shepard will not be the last.
While I support the push for hate crimes legislation that was sparked by Shepherd's death, it is only the tip of the iceberg. It is a typical American response to a problem, though. We always tend to try and punish instead of prevent. If Wyoming had a hate crimes law, it would extend the sentence of his two murderers, but they will most likely get life anyhow. (In addition to the murder charge, there will be many other charges, such as using a deadly weapon, and there is usually a mandatory sentence for murder if it was committed in conjunction with another felony.) That's the ironic part, actually. His murderers kept insisting it was a robbery, and that they didn't kill him because he was gay -- a move which could only increase their sentence, considering there are no extra sentencing guidelines in Wyoming for hate crimes.
But the real problem is that the next people who will brutally murder someone gay already have something against gay people. It's already swimming around in their head, and if you're going to commit a murder, the notion of an additional sentence because it's a hate crime just isn't a part of your thought process. This is why the inclusion of gay studies into public schools is essential. Not a specific class, but just incorporating it where appropriate. Of course, the right wing response is that this is trying to encourage homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. I used to merely dismiss their paranoia about including gay subjects into the curriculum, but now I see that their fear is valid, to them. As shown in their recent "you can change" campaign, they believe that people can just whimsically change their orientation. If they think sexual orientation is not something fixed, then I suppose this would be frightening. Of course, their ads only seem to think people would want to change in one direction. I personally have no fear of anything anyone says or does making me heterosexual, so I guess that's why this seems like an irrational fear to me.
Another thing that needs to be done is to remove all sodomy laws from the books. In Idaho, for example, the sentence for a "crime against nature" is potentially life in prison, where you can be forced against your will to do what you were jailed for dong consentually. How nice to know that you could actually serve more time for having sex with someone instead of just killing them. But, Idaho is not alone. 15 other states have sodomy laws on the books for both same-sex and opposite-sex partners. Even worse, six states (Arkansas, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas) can't use the excuse that it's not worth bringing up, because they already raised the issue and only left the same-sex sodomy laws on the books. The ultimate example of "Do as I say, not as I do." Wyoming is actually one of the states which has repealed its sodomy laws, by the way.
I guess I'm writing this in response to people who are now starting to say they "don't want to hear anymore" about Matthew's death. Unfortunately, I disagree. His death should be used as a catalyst for change. Matthew Shepard's parents should accept one of their many offers and do a big sit-down interview with Barbara Walters or someone. Put faces to his death, tell stories about his life. Make his death even more hateful and tragic, if possible. It's the only good thing that could possibly come out of it. But most importantly, do something in your community because of his death. Going to a candlelight vigil was to help you sort out his death. Now, do something about it. Write your congressman, go to your school's gay group, start your school's gay group. Because when the next fag is killed by the government- and religious right-sponsored hatred in our country, you'll feel better if you did something to try and stop it.
The worst thing you can do is be complacent about these issues, because our opposition isn't going to be.
PS: Work has me bouncing around lately, so if you're in Chicago or DC and want to meet, drop me a line.