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Saturday, 12 October 2013

Matthew Shepard: 15 Years Later

Do you remember where you were when you heard that Matthew Shepard had died?

I do. It was fifteen years ago today, when I was a freshman in university. I was in my room in the dormitory (we call them "residences" in Canada), working on an essay. The radio was on. I heard the story that Matthew Shepard had died in the hospital, and my heart dropped into my stomach.

I'd been following the story all week, ever since I'd heard that the 22-year-old Wyoming University student had been found burned, pistol-whipped, tied to a fence, and suffering from exposure to cold temperatures for 18 hours. The story had hit close to home because it was suspected that Matthew Shepard's attackers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, had targeted him because he was openly gay. Being raised in a small town where several friends had struggled with the decision to come out, and seeing what some of them had faced once they did, I knew that Matthew Shepard's decision to be openly gay in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming was potentially risky. But it had never occurred to my young, naive self that someone might actually kill another person over their sexuality.

It scared the crap out of me, and filled me with a sadness that that I couldn't express. And I still get those feelings every year, on the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death - the day that my belief in the world as a safe place for people who are different died too.

I wish that I could say that I've had a thousand experiences since then that have gone a long way to convince me that the world is safe for people that the world labels "different" - for LGBTT people, for people in racial minorities, for disabled people - but I haven't. Quite the contrary, actually.

University of Mississippi Students Heckle Matthew Shepard's Story


Matthew Shepard's story has  been made into a play called "The Laramie Project". It was recently performed at Ole Miss for an audience of almost exclusively freshmen attending as a course requirement.  A group of approximately 20 football players (as well as some other unnamed individuals) reportedly heckled the performers, shouting gay slurs and laughing inappropriately (at a funeral scene, at one point).

The entire audience was required to attend an education session about why the slurs were wrong.

In the case of the football players, I don't think that went far enough. They're varsity athletes - they're ambassadors for Ole Miss, whether they like it or not, and whatever their feelings about homosexuality are, at that age they're old enough to take responsibility for what happened here.

At the very least they should be held accountable for acting inappropriately in a theatre performance. They were rude and distracting for both the actors and other members of the audience. Perhaps, as actor Garrett Gibbons says he was told, this was a first theatre experience for some of them and they didn't know what to expect or how to behave. But that shouldn't absolve them from taking responsibility for inappropriate behaviour.

The athletes also need a bigger consequence for using  "borderline hate speech" (as Ole Miss officials called in in their apology) in a very obvious way in a public venue. In my opinion,   "fag" and "faggot" should be hate speech, but I guess they aren't officially considered such. Anyway, in a situation like this where even "borderline hate speech" is involved, I call bullshit on letting anyone, especially students who represent a university, get by with no consequence but a learning session. Representing a university in any capacity is a privilege, not a right, and if you use that privilege to spread hateful rhetoric then that privilege should be taken away from you.

Ole Miss should honour Matthew Shepard's memory and show its true commitment to making the university a place where all students can expect to feel safe and included by kicking these players off the team.

Fifteen years.  The movement for equality, for so many oppressed groups, has come so far...and yet still has so far to go.

Rest in peace, Matthew Shepard.

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