11 years ago tonight, a beautiful young wisp of a man lay comatose and bleeding to death in a hospital in Wyoming. 10 years and 364 days ago, I realized for the first time that there were people in the world whose hearts were so black they would want to kill me simply for being gay.
This was not one of the usual demons I’d read about: parents who’d renounce you or kids whimpering “faggot” in the hallway. This was a real monster. There were people in the world who would beat you until your bones broke so you could not run and your face bled so badly you would not be recognized. They’d strip your humanity away until you didn’t even look human anymore. And they’d tie you to a fence with your own shoelaces and leave you there to die.
When I think of Matthew Shepard I hurt. There is very little separating me from him other than the random elemental geography of where I happened to be born. We were both born close to the same time and both in the vast middles of our respective countries. We lived in small towns in long, wide, flat, open places where the sun sets for days and the sky never ends. And we were both gay. There but for the grace of God go I…
His legacy to us is both a freedom and a burden. His murder unlocked a societal door and in the last 11 years, for all of our turning, we have not opened it. We do not always carry this weight well. We get lazy, we let shit slide. And each time we don’t stand up for ourselves, we let Matthew bleed a little longer. We let Lawrence King’s wound rip deeper. We let Sean Kennedy fall to the pavement and break a little harder.
We owe the dead an absolution. It’s no longer enough to just remember them. We need to fight for the rights that their deaths have paved for us. If we are more free now, it’s because we walk on their backs. If we are less free, it’s because our apathy and stasis will dig our own graves.
Remember, there are people in the world who’d be only too happy to help us slide into them.
I promised myself that if I ever developed any kind of voice I would use it to encourage and gather the kinds of decent, humane, forward-thinking people that have always been the ones to find their own personal strength before they can fight for a social one. Caustic, divisive, violent people have no inner-voice; they are hollow and so their emptiness leads them easily, thoughtlessly, and rapidly to attack and decay. Their hatred is so fast.
The kind, the good-hearted, the caretakers of humanity – our first reaction is shock. Dismay. Disbelief. Though we are filled with love we wait too long. We are gilded with the will to create, not to destroy, and we look inward first. We are slow to respond because our deeds are imbued with thought. We move forward with grace and vision. But while we take our time some of us are killed, more of us are beaten, and all of us are denied the rights we deserve. For no matter which country we live in, and the laws and protections some of us are lucky enough to have, when one person, anywhere, is denied their equality we are all fundamentally less equal. Our humanity wanes.
So we must move faster. And as we do we will gather and we will take a step forward, along the path that all decent people have tread before us, towards making things solidly, purposefully, permanently better.
It’s no longer acceptable to let a muttered “faggot” slip by. It’s no longer acceptable to leave our boyfriends and girlfriends at home while we sit at the Thanksgiving table with our families. It’s no longer acceptable to pass for straight when it’s convenient for us. For if we do so then we will sit and wilt and erode while our rights are slowly, secretly denied by our own governments and our love becomes locked inside our homes and is never allowed to shine.
If you’re anywhere near Washington this weekend you need to go there to scream, shout, and march with all the vigour and passion you feel when someone hates you for nothing more than the person the universe crafted you into. Turn their hatred into your rallying cry.
We are whole. We are right. We deserve to love openly. We belong here. We’ve done nothing wrong except, perhaps, to let our innate goodness lead us to not be vehement in our own defense.
So now, for Matthew and all of those gay men and women who cannot, we must fight.
In honour of Matthew, I want to end with a moment of beauty. In October 1998 my favourite musician, Tori Amos, was touring and started playing a B-side called “Merman.” Though the song wasn’t written about Matthew, she began to dedicate it to him during her live shows. She told Attitude Magazine in 1999 that “A lot of guys were asking me to sing it for him and it just kinda took a life on of its own.”
It’s not hard to see why:
go to bed
and you will find him
he’s a merman to the knee
doesn’t need something you’re not willing to give
he’s a merman
doesn’t need your voice to cross his lands of ice…
…let it out
who could ever say you’re not simply wonderful
who could ever harm you