Sunday, October 12, 2008

Matthew Shepard, Ten Years

It ain't fair you died too young
Like a story that had just begun
But death tore the pages all away

-- "Who You'd Be Today", Kenny Chesney

Ten years ago today in a Fort Collins, Colorado hospital, Matthew Shepard died from severe head injuries resulting from a hate-fueled attack. Despite being left battered and bloody, tied to a fence and susceptible to the elements in rural Colorado, Matthew held on for several days.

For eighteen hours, Matthew Shepard was clinging to life as the fence post clinging to his body held him high enough that eventually a passing motorist would see him. Eighteen hours. Those disgusted with his lifestyle, Matthew Shepard was openly gay, would contend that those eighteen hours were his punishment for living his life as he did. In the days that followed they would call him an abomination. The media would descend on his hometown of Laramie, Wyoming and they would be followed by hate mongers of every creed who carried signs quoting the nineteenth chapter of Genesis and shouting words that sting to this day.

I was just a kid, thirteen years old to be exact, and yet it was the second time in my life I was forced to grapple with the weight of mortality. Only three years earlier I, like so many kids across America, was forced to process another act of hate--that of the Oklahoma City bombing. The image of Baylee Almon, who would later die, one of nineteen child casualties as a daycare center within the Murrah building was also hit, would haunt my ten-year old mind for the weeks and even years that followed. And then there was Matthew Shepard.

The death of Matthew Shepard was an entirely different encounter with mortality. This time a young man was killed, singled out, for who he was, who he wanted to be, how he wanted to live. This wasn't about making a statement about a government. This was about hate. Pure hatred and fear, fear that ultimately drove Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney to take the life of Shepard.

I did not believe then and I do not believe now in a vengeful God. Matthew Shepard's death was no more a message or punishment than was Hurricane Katrina. Matthew Shepard's death was the result of ignorance and hatred. Hatred so deeply embedded in the psyche of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson that it drove them to kill. It is a hatred I have seen in the eyes of others and a hatred I have heard voiced far more often than I ever cared to. Matthew Shepard's death was the result of intolerance, an intolerance that remains today.

It has been ten years since the world was introduced to Matthew Shepard; ten years since his story forced us to address the hatred among us. But after ten years, to quote Judy Shepard, "so much has changed, yet so much remains the same." Ten years and still no federal hate crimes law.

Please join the Matthew Shepard Foundation in replacing hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.


MountainGoat said...

Great post Tara. Thanks for reminding us all of the effects of hate. Not only what hate did to Matthew, but also what it meant to you as a kid then and, tragically, what it still means to so many.

Tara A. Rowe said...

Thanks, MG.