Why is it important to keep telling the story of Matthew Shepard, a college student from Wyoming who was kidnapped, robbed, beaten, and killed in 1998 simply because he was gay? I would like nothing better than to stop telling his story. I would like nothing better than to live in a world where his story was no longer relevant. A world in which gay bashings no longer happened. A world in which everyone could walk this earth free of fear regardless of sexual orientation and gender expression (not to mention race, religion, body size, ability/disability, etc.). But that is not yet the world in which we live. Our world is still a dangerous place. In our world, too often the word “gay” is used to mean “stupid” (as in “That’s so gay”). In our world, too often the word “fag” is hurled at someone with hatred. And in our world, too often that word is followed by a punch or a kick or a shove down the stairs. Or worse. When will this hatred end?
When someone is reduced to a slur, they become, in the eyes of a tormentor, less than human. They become, in a tormentor’s eyes, someone of no consequence, someone who doesn’t matter, someone—or something—easy to destroy.
And this is why we must keep telling Matthew Shepard’s story. Matt was not a “fag.” Matt was a person. He was a son, a brother, a boyfriend, a classmate, a friend. In the Jewish tradition, which is my tradition, it is said, “Whoever saves a life, saves a whole world.” I believe that the opposite is also true. Whoever destroys a life, destroys a whole world. We will never know all the great things Matthew Shepard would have done had he not been murdered (ironically, he wanted to work for international social justice). We will never know how he would have looked once his braces were removed. We will never know what he would have done upon graduating from the University of Wyoming. We will never know if, later in life, he would have married and raised children. We will never know all the joy and love he would have continued to bring to his family and friends and to those he had yet to meet. When his life was cut short, a whole world was destroyed.
In my tradition there is a concept known as “tikkun olam” which means “repairing the world.” Every person is assigned this task at birth even though it is assumed that our broken world will never be fully repaired. Still, each one of us must contribute to “tikkun olam” in some way. It is also assumed that no individual can do this alone. And that is why I am so excited to be working with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and Candlewick Press. Together we can do so much. Together we can reach high school educators and administrators, political activists, LGBT youth, librarians, parents, and readers of teen literature, all of whom can work together to carry on Matthew Shepard’s legacy to make the world a safer place.
In my lifetime, so much has changed. The high school I attended (and where I was teased for being a “lezzy”) now has a Gay-Straight Alliance, which welcomed me with open arms 40 years after I graduated (to read about this very emotional visit, see my essay “You CAN Go Home Again”). I am happily and legally married to the woman of my dreams, something I never dreamed would be possible. I make my living as an out lesbian writer, whose books are read and taught in public schools all around the country. I find all of this nothing short of miraculous.
And yet, so much hasn’t changed. Kids and teens still get teased, beat up, tormented, and even murdered for being gay or for being perceived as being gay. There are many states that still define marriage as being “between one man and one woman.” There are still many people—writers, teachers, celebrities, athletes—who are afraid they will lose their jobs if they come out of the closet.
Help us make the world a safer place. Read Matt’s story and teach it to your classes. Honor him on the Day of Silence, which occurs every year in April (this year it falls on April 11). Read poems about Matthew Shepard in your classroom during National Poetry Month (April). Make your school a safe place for LGBT students. Get involved in your school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and if your school doesn’t have one, help your students start one. Make your curriculum LGBT-inclusive. Plan lessons specifically around LGBT History Month (October) and National Coming Out Day (October 11). Be the person at your school who disrupts inappropriate behavior. So many students have told me that when someone at their school is called “a fag” the adults around them do nothing. Do something. You could save a life, and in doing so, save a whole world.
Visit glsen.org/matthewshepard to download He Continues to Make a Difference: Commemorating the Life of Matthew Shepard and find other resources for creating LGBT-inclusive curriculum.
Lesléa Newman is an author and gay rights activist who has written more than 60 books for readers of all ages. Her children's book, HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES was the first picture book to portray a family of two lesbian mothers and their child in a positive way. Lesléa is also the author of the teen novel-in-verse, OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD which explores the impact of Matthew Shepard's murder in a cycle of 68 poems told from various points of view including the truck he was kidnapped in, the fence to which he was tied, the stars that watched over him, and a deer that kept him company all through the night. OCTOBER MOURNING has won many literary awards including an American Library Association Stonewall Honor, and the Florida Council of Teachers of English Joan F. Kaywell Award. Lesléa has given her presentation, "He Continues to Make a Difference: The Story of Matthew Shepard" all over the country at high schools, colleges, libraries, and conferences, hoping to inspire students to carry on Matthew Shepard's legacy to erase hate and make the world a safer place for all. Visit Lesléa online at www.lesleakids.com.