Imagine (for Matthew Shepard 1976-1998)

I have never cried on stage before.

I have been a guest lecturer at hundreds of universities, but I have never before wept behind a podium. Then again, I have never been greeted by a College President with tears streaming from his eyes. But this was the University of Wyoming, the school that Matthew Shepard had attended before he died from one of the most brutal gay bashings of all time. Coincidentally (or not coincidentally?) it was the start of Coming Out Week, and, as the author of “Heather Has Two Mommies”, I had been invited to be the school’s keynote speaker.

A few days before my trip to Wyoming, Jim Osborne, a member of the school’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Association called to tell me what had happened to Matthew.

“Do you still want to come?” he asked.

I only had one question: had the suspects been caught?

“They’re already in jail,” Jim assured me.

“Then I’ll be there,” I assured him. Even though my spouse and several friends were concerned for my safety (I did have a bodyguard) I knew how important it was for those students to go on with Coming Out Week. And I was not going to disappoint them.

I was picked up at Denver International Airport by a young lesbian who asked me not to use her name in print because she wants to join the Navy. As we drove (and drove and drove)–I learned that out west a “short ride from the airport” means a good three hours–my eyes wandered the landscape. To this native New Yorker, the vast empty spaces were overwhelming and terrifying. It was easy to see how a young man tied spread eagle to a fence could remain undiscovered for eighteen hours.

As we pulled into Laramie, I spotted television trucks with satellite dishes parked outside the pawn shops and bars. My driver proudly pointed out the tallest building in Wyoming: a student dormitory that boasted eight floors.

“What’s your state population?” I asked.

“It’s 450,000,” she answered and then her eyes filled. “Minus one.”

I was met on campus by my bodyguard who drove me to a lecture hall. There Jim Osborn tied a yellow ribbon for Matthew around my sleeve before we fell weeping into each other’s arms. Why was I feeling so emotional? I had never met Matthew Shepard, or even heard his name until a few days ago. I subscribe to many gay newspapers and unfortunately I read about gay bashings all the time. Yet, it felt quite different being at Matthew’s school, meeting his friends and teachers and knowing that had circumstances been different he would have been at my lecture. And to know that Matthew’s alleged attackers were in jail, a stone’s throw away, at least by Wyoming standards. Russell A. Henderson and Aaron J. McKinney were to be arraigned the next morning, and had I not had flight reservations, I would have liked to show up in court. Like Yoko Ono, who pressed her nose to the glass of the police cruiser that held Mark David Chapman the night he shot John Lennon, I wanted to see the face of someone who could be that cruel.

I started my presentation by asking for a moment of silence for Matthew. Then I addressed the gay men and lesbians in the audience, who needed special words of encouragement to go on, despite their rage, fear and grief. Next I addressed the heterosexual members of the audience, reminding them they had a special opportunity to show the world what kind of allies they were. Then I asked everyone to think of one thing they could do to end homophobia and promise the person sitting next to them they would do it that week. Finally I launched into my talk: “Heather’s Mommy Speaks Out: Homophobia, Censorship and Family Values.” Since the main point of my talk is that education–the earlier the better–is the key to ending homophobia, my appearance in Wyoming couldn’t have been more timely.

The morning after my presentation, I found myself back at the airport in a tram, heading for Terminal C. A woman who looked about my age smiled and pointed to my armband.

“What’s that?”

“It’s for Matthew Shepard,” I said, and she started to cry.

“His poor parents,” she said. “I can’t imagine what they’re going through.”

As the tram raced along, I thought about what she had said: I can’t imagine…. and the words of Minnie Bruce Pratt came to mind. Pratt, author of Crime Against Nature, a collection of poems about losing custody of her sons because she is a lesbian, was a keynote speaker at OutWrite, a national gay and lesbian writing conference held in Boston last year. Her speech addressed the danger of that very phrase, I can’t imagine. Minnie Bruce Pratt told us if we couldn’t imagine our lives turning out like someone else’s, then we were denying the fact that anything that can happen to someone else can happen to us, too. My guess is the woman I was on the tram with was a mother, and she couldn’t imagine herself watching her child die from wounds so violently and deliberately inflicted. I, too, have tried and failed to imagine the last hours of Matthew Shepard’s life before he lost consciousness. It is unfathomable to imagine the raw fear he felt as he begged for his life.

As a fiction writer, I know it’s part of my job to use my imagination. Now I realize it is part of my job as a human being as well. Because only if every one of us allows ourselves–no, forces ourselves–to imagine that we were Matthew Shepard, only then will we be motivated to do something. And something must be done.

While Matthew Shepard lay dying in a Fort Collins, Colorado hospital, a homecoming parade for Colorado State University passed a few blocks away. A fraternity float featured a scarecrow with the words “I’m gay” spray-painted on it, a direct reference to the fact that the first person who came upon Matthew almost didn’t stop because he thought Matthew was a scarecrow. There are hate groups on the internet with addresses like Two gay organizations in Colorado have already gotten email messages celebrating Matthew’s death, ending with the words, “I hope it happens more often.”

I hope each reader of this article thinks of one thing they can do to end homophobia and makes a commitment to doing it this week. I told the students at the University of Wyoming that I would donate a percentage of my speaking fee to the Matthew Shepard Memorial Fund and that I would dedicate all the speeches I do for the rest of the year to his memory. I now carry a picture of Matthew Shepard in my wallet, so that on the days I feel too tired to fly to another college to speak about lesbian and gay rights, I’ll look at his picture and remember why I do it. I do it so that what happened to Matthew Shepard will never happen again. I do it because I have always been struck by the prayer for peace we read aloud every year in synagogue during the High Holy Days, which ends: and you shall lay down and no man shall terrify you.

To quote John Lennon: Imagine.

© 1998 Lesléa Newman