LGBTQ com­mu­nity still not safe, de­spite gains

The Beacon Herald - - OPINION - ROBIN BARANYAI

It’s dif­fi­cult to talk about Matthew Shep­ard with­out cry­ing. It’s been 20 years since the young gay man was bru­tally beaten, bound to a split-rail fence and left to die. A pass­ing cy­clist ini­tially mis­took him for a scare­crow. Five days later, he died in hos­pi­tal, on Oct. 12, 1998. His mur­der re­de­fined the town of Laramie, Wyo., as surely as, six months later, a deadly high school shoot­ing would be­come syn­ony­mous with Columbine.

The vi­cious hate crime sparked an out­pour­ing of grief. At a vigil on Capi­tol Hill, Ellen De­Generes put words to the raw emo­tion. “I am so pissed off,” she be­gan. “I can’t stop cry­ing.” Twenty years later, at the Na­tional Cathe­dral last month, Bishop Gene Robin­son reprised the theme at a ser­vice where Shep­ard’s ashes were fi­nally laid to rest.

“Let me just say from the be­gin­ning that I’ve been cry­ing for a week now,” Robin­son said with emo­tion. As the first openly gay Epis­co­pal bishop, he had a mes­sage for LGBTQ mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion: “Many of you have been hurt by your own re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties, and I want to wel­come you back,” he said. “Some churches have been on this jour­ney with you, and we will not only wel­come you, we will cel­e­brate you.”

Shep­ard’s death was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in LGBTQ ac­cep­tance, as Amer­i­cans starkly con­fronted the al­ter­na­tive. His par­ents, gal­va­nized by in­con­solable loss, have be­come sea­soned ac­tivists through the Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion, work­ing to fight hate with un­der­stand­ing and com­pas­sion.

Their un­wa­ver­ing ad­vo­cacy helped ex­pand fed­eral hate crimes leg­is­la­tion to en­com­pass sex­u­al­ity and gen­der iden­tity.

If tragedy has a pos­i­tive func­tion, it is to unite peo­ple in grief and de­ter­mi­na­tion. But two decades af­ter Shep­ard’s death, the po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere has be­come toxic and di­vi­sive.

The di­vid­ing lines run­ning through Amer­ica have grown dan­ger­ously sharp, be­tween red and blue; na­tivism and in­clu­sion; fear and hope.

The U.S. midterm elec­tions, which handed Democrats con­trol of the House, were widely in­ter­preted as a ref­er­en­dum on racism. The cen­tre­piece was un­hinged fear­mon­ger­ing over a car­a­van of mi­grants so des­per­ate, they would seek asy­lum in Trump’s Amer­ica. But im­mi­grants are not the only group de­mo­nized by this ad­min­is­tra­tion. For many vot­ers, the midterms were also a ref­er­en­dum on LGBTQ dis­crim­i­na­tion.

The Hu­man Rights Cam­paign iden­ti­fied more than 120 anti-LGBT bills in­tro­duced in 2017, from bath­room bills to mea­sures restrict­ing adop­tion, across 30 states. They were capped by a memo de­tail­ing a fed­eral plan to ef­fec­tively de­fine trans­gen­der and in­ter­sex peo­ple out of ex­is­tence, leaked to the New York Times in Oc­to­ber, which drew swift con­dem­na­tion from bi­ol­o­gists, ge­neti­cists and the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion.

More than 1,600 sci­en­tists, in­clud­ing nine No­bel Prize lau­re­ates, con­demned the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posal as “fun­da­men­tally in­con­sis­tent not only with sci­ence, but also with eth­i­cal prac­tices, hu­man rights, and ba­sic dig­nity.”

In re­sponse to such as­saults, a record num­ber of LGBT can­di­dates stood for elec­tion in the midterms, in what was dubbed a “rain­bow wave.” They had sig­nif­i­cant suc­cesses, elect­ing the first les­bian Na­tive Amer­i­can woman, Sharice Davids, to Congress, and send­ing Jared Po­lis to the Colorado gover­nor’s man­sion, as the first openly gay man elected gover­nor in U.S. his­tory.

There also was progress in bal­lot mea­sures. Mas­sachusetts passed the first statewide ref­er­en­dum to pro­tect trans­gen­der rights, up­hold­ing a bill that pro­hibits dis­crim­i­na­tion in pub­lic places based on gen­der iden­tity, in­clud­ing bath­rooms.

Be­fore the ser­vice at the Na­tional Cathe­dral, Shep­ard’s par­ents kept his ashes at home for 20 years, rather than risk hav­ing them des­e­crated by “haters.” It’s a sad re­minder there are still many spa­ces where LGBTQ peo­ple are not safe, even in death. write.robin@baranyai.ca

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