Judy and Dennis Shepard chose to turn their grief into action. They set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation to honour their first-born son, who was brutally tortured and killed in 1998. Fifteen years on, the parents are still going from school to school giving talks.
It’s not easy getting access to high schools, especially the public schools, Judy tells me. “All it takes is for one parent to say no,” and school administrators get cold feet.
Why do parents resist? Explains Judy: “They don’t want to admit that they have gay kids, or they think that to talk about the issue would mean they create gay kids.”
But when the Shepards do get a chance to talk to schoolkids, do they encounter hostile reactions? “No, all the straight kids ask, ‘How do I help my friends if they are gay?’ or ‘How to protect against bullying?’” says Judy. Most times, when a school invites them to give a talk, attendance would be mandatory — unlike at colleges where students can choose if they want to attend — and so it’s not as if the kids in the school assembly are a self-selected gay-friendly bunch.
And yet, the Shepards do not think that gay bullying has really been reduced despite tireless efforts from their foundation and many other organisations, e.g. It Gets Better and the Tyler Clementi Foundation. “Bullying has not declined,” says Judy, “but it’s not news any more.” In their opinion, the media has shifted its focus away before the battle has been won. “Hate crimes are not reported,” unless it is as egregious as that which befell their son.
Dennis notes the newspaperman’s maxim: “If it bleeds, it leads,” but most cases are just not sensational enough to be in the news. This is especially so when cyber- or other forms of bullying pushes a gay, lesbian or transgender child to suicide. And I would add that journalists feel very conflicted about suicides. There is a concern — a valid one — that reporting a suicide might cue others to do the same. And yet, not reporting and discussing the background and reasons for a suicide is tantamount to sweeping a social problem under the carpet. Numerous studies have indicated that youth suicides are disproportionately LGBT.
The absence of a continuing, high-profile social conversation about the subject allows the problem (bullying of kids for their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity) to persist. It also means denial of the problem remains widespread.
Last year, when the Shepards were at a school in Latvia, the school authorities suggested that the issue might not be topical for their students. Recalls Dennis (pic at left), “They said, ‘Oh, it doesn’t happen here.’” But at the talk itself, teen after teen asked about how to help their gay friends protect against hostility, he recalls. Or, the gay kids themselves would ask how they could come out safely.
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Yet, it was the media that gave their cause the initial boost, albeit in tragic circumstances. The assault on and murder of their son was headline news for weeks. It broke the erstwhile tight linkage, in public perception, between homosexuality and Aids, by forcing mainstream folks to look in the mirror and see the even tighter connection between their widespread prejudices and the gruesome horror inflicted on a young man. Where the supposed ills of homosexuality used to be blamed on the gay person, it could no longer escape notice that it — or more accurately, gay-hate — was in actual fact a bigger problem, and one made and perpetuated by many uninformed non-gay persons.
Matthew Wayne Shepard (December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998) was attacked, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die on the night of 6 – 7 October 1998 near Laramie, Wyoming. The University of Wyoming student was found by a cyclist 18 hours later, rushed to hospital but died on 12 October from severe head injuries. Matthew had fractures on the back of his head, with severe brainstem damage. The latter destabilised his heart rate, body temperature and other vital functions. Mercifully, he never came out of a coma.
In separate trials in 1999, perpetrators Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were sentenced to two consecutive life sentences each.
They had met Matthew at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, and, McKinney alleged, Matthew had asked for a ride home. The prosecution however, argued that the two had picked Matthew out as their intended robbery victim, and thereafter pretended to be gay in order to gain the young man’s trust. Instead of taking him home, they drove to a remote area where they robbed him, pistol-whipped and assaulted him severely, and tied him up with a rope from McKinney’s truck. The bloody gun and Shepard’s shoes and wallet were later found by police in the truck.
The brutality inflicted on Matthew strongly indicated that it was more hate crime than mere robbery.
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That the media can make a huge difference to public attitudes came up again when the Shepards and I speak about the rapid change in Americans’ attitudes to gay marriage. As social changes go, this particular one has been unusually fast. By now, poll after poll has shown a majority of Americans supporting the right of same-sex couples to be married.
A mere 15 years ago, when it was first proposed in Hawaii (and failed to pass) the great majority of Americans considered it absurd.
Judy shares a poignant recollection from that time. “Matthew had asked me whether he would see gay marriage in his lifetime. I said to him, ‘I won’t see it in my lifetime, but I think you will see it in yours.’” She pauses to compose herself. “How ironic it is that he didn’t,” while it is she who is witnessing it all.
The Shepards ascribe this rapid change to the media, particularly social media, pop culture and TV shows. It’s Matthew’s generation which has now grown up and moved into positions where they can make change, Dennis points out.
But didn’t the conservative rightwing use media just as much to promote their anti-gay cause? Haven’t they been just as slick, if not more so? I ask. The Shepards agree but add that ultimately, people make up their own minds. How it worked was that “the media brought attention to the issues to the general public,” says Dennis, “who then let it simmer.”
But there’s plenty more to be done. And it’s high time the media and pop culture draw attention to the continuing undercurrent of homophobic bullying of young people. Gay marriage is fine and dandy, but on a daily basis, it’s fair to say more young gay, lesbian and transgender people are bullied than older ones get hitched. Schools need to be alert to it and to take a stand. And everybody has a role to play to call out anyone using gay slurs or engaging in gay-targetted pranks. One victim more is one victim too many.