Meet the new gen­er­a­tion of LGBTQ ac­tivists

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Elise Sch­melzer

Matthew Shep­ard would’ve fit in with the mil­len­ni­als.

At least that’s what Jason Mars­den be­lieves. He would know — he was friends with Shep­ard and is the long­time di­rec­tor of the Den­ver­based foun­da­tion named af­ter him. Mars­den means it in a pos­i­tive way.

Shep­ard was po­lit­i­cal and opin­ion­ated. He loved to de­bate and was im­pa­tient for progress, said Mars­den, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion. He was pushy.

Matthew Shep­ard, in fact, was much like many of the mem­bers of a new gen­er­a­tion of ac­tivists who are work­ing for LGBTQ equal­ity and rights in his name, Mars­den said.

Some were just com­ing to terms with their own sex­u­al­ity when Shep­ard’s mur­der fo­cused the world’s at­ten­tion on the op­pres­sion, vi­o­lence and in­equal­ity the gay com­mu­nity faced. Oth­ers weren’t even old enough at the time to read a news­pa­per.

Shep­ard, 21, died Oct. 12, 1998, in a Fort Collins hospi­tal. Six days ear­lier, two men had beaten him un­con­scious and left him tied to a fence out­side Laramie. The at­tack­ers told po­lice they tar­geted Shep­ard be­cause he was gay. Mil­lions around the world fol­lowed news cov­er­age of the at­tack, Shep­ard’s death and the tri­als of his mur­der­ers.

Joe Foster was 15 years old the day Shep­ard died. Foster knew he was gay but hadn’t told any­one. He was ter­ri­fied.

Sara Gross­man was 13 years old that day. She hadn’t come out ei­ther — she was just learn­ing about her sex­u­al­ity.

Jess Fahls­ing was 2, and, of course, has no mem­ory of the event.

All three grew up in the shadow of Shep­ard’s death. Now, 20 years later, all three are ac­tivists work­ing in his name. They’re his liv­ing legacy.

“There’s a kind of beauty to the fact that they’re so much like he was,” said Mars­den, 46.

A grow­ing legacy

Jess Fahls­ing’s life this past month has been hec­tic, as the 22year­old helped plan dozens of events at the Univer­sity of Wy­oming, where Shep­ard at­tended school. As co­chair of the Matthew Shep­ard Memo­rial Group at the univer­sity, Fahls­ing was in charge of a slate of events com­mem­o­rat­ing the 20th an­niver­sary of Shep­ard’s death.

But Fahls­ing, who iden­ti­fies as queer and uses gen­der­neu­tral pro­nouns, didn’t even know Shep­ard’s name un­til their se­nior year in high school in Rock Springs, Wyo. — about three hours west of Laramie on In­ter­state 80.

Fahls­ing wasn’t sure about their own iden­tity then. There was no vis­i­ble queer com­mu­nity in Rock Springs, a town of about 23,000. There were no role mod­els for Fahls­ing there.

But once they moved to Laramie to at­tend the Univer­sity of Wy­oming, Fahls­ing started to ques­tion their iden­tity. Grad­u­ally, they be­gan to live pub­licly as a queer per­son. But they re­mained fairly pri­vate, shying away from pub­lic ac­tivism.

Then, in April 2017, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R­Wyo., told a group of high school stu­dents that a man who wears a tutu to a bar shouldn’t be sur­prised he gets into fights be­cause the man in the tutu “asks for it.” About the same time, Fahls­ing read “The Laramie Project,” a play about Shep­ard’s life and death, for a class. The com­bi­na­tion of the two events pro­pelled Fahls­ing into ac­tivism.

It’s hard for Fahls­ing to pin down ex­actly what Matthew’s legacy means in their life. They try to em­u­late Shep­ard and his fam­ily in small mo­ments, by re­spond­ing to hate and ho­mo­pho­bia with love.

“It’s some­thing that’s go­ing to evolve over the course of my life,” Fahls­ing said. “Matt’s legacy isn’t stag­nant. It grows with peo­ple.”

A new era

Gross­man and Foster work for the Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion in Den­ver and rep­re­sent a younger gen­er­a­tion that will con­tinue the work started by Shep­ard’s par­ents.

The Shep­ards are in their 60s now and reach­ing re­tire­ment age. Po­si­tions at the foun­da­tion they cre­ated are slowly be­ing filled by peo­ple who were chil­dren or teens when Matthew died.

As a gay clos­eted teen, Foster was ner­vous about the killing. He didn’t want to meet the same end. He tried to keep fam­ily and friends at arm’s length, in case they might find out he was gay.

But his mom did the op­po­site. She started driv­ing him to school ev­ery day. She be­came more af­fec­tion­ate to­ward him.

Years later, af­ter he had come out, she told Foster she had known he was gay for years be­fore he told her just af­ter he grad­u­ated from high school. She said Shep­ard’s death made her fear for his safety. She saw the Shep­ard fam­ily’s grief and didn’t want it to be­come her own.

“She knew she couldn’t pro­tect me from peo­ple who might want to hurt me,” Foster said. “But she did know that if some­thing did hap­pen, I knew I was cared for and loved.”

Foster, 35, now works as the de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor for the Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion. The Shep­ards’ ex­am­ple, and that of other LGBTQ ac­tivists, taught him to never stay silent in the face of in­jus­tice, he said.

“It was a nat­u­ral fit for me,” he said. “(The Shep­ards) have been my he­roes.”

“It was serendip­ity”

Gross­man, com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager for the Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion, remembers the days af­ter Shep­ard’s death. She remembers at­tend­ing an assem­bly at her Florida mid­dle school dur­ing which the head­mas­ter dis­cussed the mur­der. She remembers the school lead­ers for­bid­ding the use of the word “gay” as a neg­a­tive de­scrip­tor.

As an adult, Gross­man worked for ad­vo­cacy and po­lit­i­cal groups in Den­ver and else­where in Colorado be­fore piv­ot­ing to fo­cus more on startup busi­nesses. Un­til June 12, 2016.

Gross­man’s best friend, Drew Leinonen, died that day af­ter a gun­man opened fire in an Or­lando, Fla., gay bar, killing 49. She was haunted by his death — the two had of­ten par­tied at the Pulse Night­club. Af­ter his fu­neral, she can­celed all of her work con­tracts. She ob­sessed over the shoot­ing. She reread Leinonen’s on­line jour­nals from years ago.

Af­ter about a month, she de­cided she wanted to go back to work in LGBTQ ad­vo­cacy and went on­line to a non­profit job board.

The first list­ing was for a com­mu­ni­ca­tions po­si­tion at the Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion. Drew was sim­i­lar to Matt in many ways, Gross­man said. They were both blunt, straight­for­ward peo­ple. They didn’t shy from con­flict.

“It was serendip­ity, it was kismet, it was all of those things,” she said.

There has been progress for the LGBTQ com­mu­nity over the last 20 years. But there’s still work to do, Gross­man said.

Five states — in­clud­ing Shep­ard’s na­tive Wy­oming — don’t have any laws spe­cific to hate crimes. Data on crimes or in­ci­dents where the vic­tim was tar­geted be­cause of their sex­u­al­ity or gen­der iden­tity re­mains in­com­plete.

But Fahls­ing, Foster, Gross­man and their peers in the new gen­er­a­tion of ac­tivists are ex­actly the right peo­ple to han­dle the chal­lenges, said Mars­den, the foun­da­tion’s di­rec­tor. They will de­mand change. They will em­power in­di­vid­ual peo­ple to stand up for them­selves, to set a high stan­dard for how a per­son should be treated.

“Washington’s not go­ing to save us, Wall Street’s not go­ing to save us, Hol­ly­wood’s not go­ing to save us,” he said. “It’s us. It’s them.”

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