Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In Honor of Matthew Shepard

Today marks a historic victory for those in the LGBT community. President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This law officially adds violence directed at a person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity to the reasons that someone can be tried for a hate crime.

This is very personal for me. I was living in San Francisco when Matthew Shepard was tortured and left to die tied to a fence in Wyoming in 1998. The next day, the huge rainbow flag in the Castro was lowered to half mast, and our entire community was in shock. We were also frightened, looking over our shoulders liked hunted animals. It brought home how incredibly vulnerable we could be in a society that routinely classified us as sinners and second-class citizens.

That next summer, I was in Los Angeles with my girlfriend, when we were threatened and chased down the street by three angry young men dressed in "skinhead" garb. We managed to escape to a coffee shop. Moments later, the men showed up again, and saw us through the plate glass window. They began throwing their bodies up against the glass, screaming obscenities at us. There were only two young people in the coffee shop besides us. With shaking hands, I grabbed the pay phone on the wall and dialed 911. When I asked for help, the dispatcher calmly said, "In what way do you feel threatened?" The police never came. We were left to figure out a safe exit on our own, with the assistance of other patrons.

For ten years, Matthew's parents, LGBT activists and sympathetic politicians have lobbied to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of motivations on the hate crimes act. Numerous times it was brought forward; numerous times it failed, turned down by people like former President George W. Bush, who said that gay people shouldn't be given "special treatment." Each time it came up, I believed it would finally pass. Again and again, I was disappointed. And each disappointment made me feel less safe in this country, in this community.

So it is with great exultation and relief that I received the flurry of e-mails in my inbox today from the various groups I subscribe to which deal with gay and lesbian issues. Finally, there is recognition from my government that LGBT people are singled out by perpetrators. Finally, there is some legislation with some teeth in it to send a societal message that this behavior will not be tolerated.

And finally, most important of all, Matthew Shepard can rest in peace. We have, at last, provided him with a meaningful legacy. What better message of compassion?

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