LGBTQ community still not safe, despite gains
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. firstname.lastname@example.org