Thursday, October 1, 1998
Matthew Shepard: A Call to Arms
by Clinton Fein
Last week, Matthew Shepard died. Finally succumbing after suffering a brutal attack by two men who had been taught that the very appearance of being gay was worth a human life. Not being gay necessarily - simply perceived as being so. And for that, today, he was buried.
Almost immediately following his death, a national fever-pitched outcry about hate crime legislation, hate speech, Christian dogma, gay agendas, crime and punishment, words and deeds colored America's national dialog and political landscape. Memorials, candlelight vigils, marches, protests and demonstrations swelled on campuses, streets and city halls across the country. Angry and tearful speeches, passionate condemnations and dire warnings from Presidents to preachers dominated the airwaves and newspapers in an outpouring of sentiment not seen since Princess Diana was killed in a car crash last year.
Topping the agenda, understandably, is hate crime legislation, and hate speech. Words have meaning, meaning has interpretation, interpretation inspires action, and action has consequences. In a state of confusion resulting from a brutal and senseless tragedy, everyone, from politicians to judges to the public at large is grappling with how to weigh up speech and crime, First Amendment protections and politics, rhetoric and reaction. Politicians and pundits are being forced to react with no clear indication as to the political fallout from inaction or the political fallout from hastily enacted legislation.
Words alone do not create environments and are not solely responsible for attitudes. The rush to outlaw epithets and speech will have absolutely no impact and will more likely cause more damage. It's not words that lead to killing; it's context, attitudes and systematically integrated discrimination.
A hate crime can be committed silently, or even mischaracterized as a hate crime. David Cash - the student who watched and said nothing as his friend slaughtered little Sherrice Iverson in a casino bathroom is a prime example. Is his silence, or failure to report the crime a crime in itself? Does the fact that the little girl was black and her killer, Jeremy Strohmeyer, white make it a hate crime? And if indeed we point fingers at those uttering the words we deem hateful enough to make them co-conspirators, what blame do we place at the hands of those who remain silent? - The closeted actors, talk show hosts, politicians and public figures whose careers and bank accounts are more important than some kid from Wyoming's well being?
As gay groups nationwide blacken their Web sites and turn up their rhetoric, we need to look beyond the politicization of a young man's brutal death. Was Matthew Shepard alive today, one has to wonder at how he would feel about the rush to canonize him, and the stretch to associate his name with every well-meaning, but all-too-often dangerously misguided organization. Could Matthew Shepard have afforded a tuxedo and $250.00 ticket to the Human Rights Campaign dinner? Did any of the expensive GLAAD awards given to celebrities save Matthew Shepard that fateful night? Or would the money used have been better spent on educational materials or self-defense classes for gay kids?
In our rush to canonize Mathew Shepard, let's not lose sight of the language we use and messages we send. Yes, Matthew Shepard's death has been enormously successful in highlighting the senselessness of gay bashing with global proportions a million times more impactful and far reaching than advertisements taken out by so-called Christian groups in national newspapers. The embracing of Matthew Shepard to push an agenda, however, is distasteful and unfair, whether it's to advocate gay marriage or strong-arm legislation unrelated to his killing.
The impact of speeches by the likes of Trent Lott, Gary Bauer, Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich and others that have likened homosexuality to kleptomania and alcoholism is clearly evident, and speaks volumes for itself. Absurd in its connotations - how many people are killed for being alcoholics or kleptomaniacs? - their right to express their opinions is imperative, and ought to be protected, no matter how evil, sinister or ugly. Harboring hateful sentiments, or acting upon them will not help the targets of that hatred if the sentiments are simply masked in niceties, cloaked in hypocrisy or forbidden outright. If nothing else, the simmering anger and hatred beneath the surface denied any form of expression, will eventually explode in ways even uglier and deadly than what we're seeing now.
Victimization is a double-edged sword. As long as gays define themselves as victims, they will continue to be victimized. Women discovered this phenomenon in the workplace when the very legislation and thought paradigms inextricably associated with feminism that they had fought so hard for, or at least embraced, were suddenly being used against them. To victimize by applying the very label 'victim' to their predicament, and by ironically, creating a misogynist and patronizing role for the biggest offenders, as protectors. Gay efforts to define themselves as victims are in danger of yielding the same unfortunate result.
The day after Matthew Shepard died, a divided U.S. Supreme Court let stand a voter initiative that barred Cincinnati from protecting gays against discrimination. In terms of the "special rights v. equal rights" debate, this law is in fact a special right, but one that deems it okay to discriminate against a group of people because of who they are. Like white heterosexual men. The enactment of federal hate crime legislation will not alter this. This is a dangerous and slippery slope. If the Supreme Court deems this type of discrimination okay, they may down the road uphold initiatives or laws stating that gays are not entitled to second Amendment protections either.
Perhaps it's time for gays to stand up and take control of their destiny. To stop relying on self-appointed national leaders to go begging to sit at a hypocritical political table where they are neither welcome nor accepted. To stop characterizing themselves as victims and bestowing awards on celebrities and media outlets because they represent gays "favorably", while gay kids are being pistol whipped and beaten to death and anti-gay violence is on the rise. Perhaps every gay and lesbian individual should stop supporting gun-control advocates, and arm themselves with guns and ammunition and embrace the gun ownership philosophies of rabid homophobe and National Rifle Association chairman, Charlton Heston. Because neither a Human Rights Campaign membership, nor a federal law could have saved Matthew Shepard that night. But a loaded gun might have. Ironic, since it was an unfired gun that killed him.
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