After 17 years of dogmatic slumber and denial over the grisly murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, Laramie’s City Council passed the state’s first broad LGBT protection ordinance. Council members voted 7–2 to prohibit discrimination in the city limits against persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity in matters of housing, employment, and access to public facilities such as cafés. Like Rip Van Winkle rousing from a long sleep, the city that still only memorializes Matt with a plaque on a park bench awakened and finally addressed its phobias head-on. What took place in Laramie on May 12 was not just a one-off decision. It has implications for the rest of the nation, too.
Like Laramie, no town wants to admit that a bias-driven hate crime took place there. Locales loathe bad publicity. They fear being labeled. So, they deny the problem in a variety of ways. They indulge in blaming the victim. Or sweep the killing under the rug. Or blame “outside agitators” and “other mitigating factors.” The common refrain is “Things like that just don’t happen here.”
But they do happen in American hometowns everywhere, all the time. The only healthy, sane thing for a city or town to do when a murder marks a place forever is to own up to it squarely, and do something to address the root causes that allowed prejudice to take root in the first place. Ask Dallas. Or Memphis. Or Birmingham. You surely can’t make the facts go away. You can and you must rebuild your civic reputation by ensuring that justice and equality for all your citizens take the place of dehumanization and denial. Laramie started that painful process by doing the right thing last Wednesday night.
For seventeen long years, local townsfolk and university students of conscience lobbied Laramie’s elected officials, tried to reason with them, and stood up to their xenophobic neighbors. They opposed the powerful anti-human rights forces that were invested in re-writing the story of the nighttime abduction and brutal beating of slim, slight Matt Shepard by two local men gone bad that unfolded before the world in the Albany County Courthouse. Too many gay people saw no evidence that anything would ever change in Laramie, so they packed up their talent and their verve for living, and left town one or two at a time. Though LGBT people and their allies lost the argument year after year, those who remained persisted in pointing out that the perpetrators, Henderson and McKinney, weren’t “outsiders.” They were homegrown products of Laramie public schools, men who grew up in the same city as Pioneer Days and UW Cowboy Pride. Matt Shepard was not to blame for his own death, no matter what deniers contended, they argued. After losing a close vote to enact a similar statewide discrimination law in February, Wyoming Equality and local advocates mounted the effort that finally passed the first broadly inclusive anti-discrimination ordinance in the “Equality State.” Its provisions will go into effect before the end of the month.
No victim of hate crime ever “had it coming.” No family ever deserves the horror and grief Judy, Dennis, and Logan Shepard have suffered. The public outcry raised by Matt’s death roused other states and municipalities long before Laramie woke up to what happened at the Fireside Lounge and on that cold, high ridge with the buck fence above town. In October 2009, President Obama signed The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, saying, “We must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits – not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear.” Now, Laramie transgender high school student Rihanna Kelver can more confidently go about her life, relieved that she will not lose her job because of how she identifies, one of the first practical results of this ordinance.
Throughout the rest of the country, however, hate crime violence against LGBT Americans is hitting historic highs. With widespread publicity concerning the cause célèbre of the day, Marriage Equality, attacks on vulnerable persons, especially gay men and transgender people of color, are alarmingly on the rise. Thinly veiled efforts to turn back the clock on equality cloaked in the garb of “religious freedom,” the RFRAs, are proliferating around the nation. Seeking to stall justice, retrogrades like Texas are trying to enact pre-emptive laws inoculating the states against a possible Supreme Court decision striking down the bans against same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, like Laramie prior to Wednesday night’s anti-discrimination victory, the rest of the nation seems to have drifted back into a Rip Van Winkle coma while innocent LGBT people by their thousands face brutalization and harm in towns and cities every succeeding year. Laramie, the longtime hold out for LGBT protections, has awakened to its responsibility for its most vulnerable residents. If Laramie can do it, after so many years of misdirection, denial, and historical revisionism, surely the rest of us must wake up to our responsibilities, as well.
Justice must bloom in the thousands of urban and rural settings where everyday Americans live and work. It is high time for all forms of heterosexism and homophobia to be put on notice that hate is not an American value. Local advocates must press their elected officials to pass anti-discrimination laws and make them stick. One of the most encouraging signs of this awakened determination to do right by everybody is the Golden Rule attitude of Laramie resident Mike Sumner who said during public speak out time before the City Council vote, “As a Christian I do sin when I fail to follow the loving and compassionate example of Jesus Christ,” he said. “And I believe that a vote against this ordinance is the same as throwing the first stone.”
Drop the stones in your hand, America. Laramie has shown us how to do it.
Laramie, Wyoming – On October 12, Matthew Wayne Shepard died because of the unreasoning hatred of two young men. It has been 16 years since then, and the killings have not abated. Instead, the numbers of murdered LGBTQ people are higher today than when Matt was murdered in 1998. On the University of Wyoming campus, a single bench is his memorial. But for us who labor for justice to come in his name, his true memorial is our dedication to end anti-LGBTQ hate crimes forever. Rest in peace, Matt. ~ The Unfinished Lives Project Team
Topeka, Kansas – Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle has posted a new article on Huffington Post Religion. You can visit the original article here. Comments and shares from the Huffington Post site are appreciated by all the readers of http://unfinishedlivesblog.com.
Rev. Fred Phelps, Founder and former Pastor of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, is dead at the age of 84. Pundits and regular people are busily dissecting the story and social significance of one of the most venom-filled ministerial lives in American history, as well as the hate-mongering “ministry” the Westboro Church became notorious for doing since 1991. What, however, is the spiritual and theological import of the life Fred Phelps lived and the religious leadership he carried out for better than two decades? What does Fred Phelps teach us about God, and the service of others in God’s name?
Dare we even speak of Rev. Phelps as a “negative saint,” the polar opposite of all Christ-like saints, given the carnage Phelps left in the lives of countless queer folk, slain service members, and cultural celebrities he and his flock picketed and condemned to eternal damnation? “Saint-language” seems blasphemous when we apply it to a man’s life so rabidly committed to eliciting the worst from the human spirit and the Christian faith. Nevertheless, every life lived has something to teach us about ourselves and God, does it not? How can we not speak of Phelps as we must speak of ourselves and all others who stand need of the amazing grace of God? Allow me to explain what I mean.
We remember the epithets Fred Phelps reveled in. He made “God Hates Fags” a standard feature of modern hate speech. We cannot erase from our minds the images of Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither, and Diane Whipple writhing in the animated hell fire that Phelps installed on his web site, complete with a background soundtrack of groans and screams to drive home the message that nothing he could imagine could be worse than to be gay and lesbian. We will never know the number of fanatics Phelps inspired by his vileness, nor the multitude of LGBTQ people young and old who felt his criticisms crush their self-esteem and cut into their souls like knives. But we have seen his kind before: Pharaoh, and Saul, Ahitophel, and Judas, to name but a few oldies but baddies. Or Roy Cohn, Senator Joe McCarthy, and “Bull” Connor to name some near contemporary bad guys. I am sure you have your own personal list. Nevertheless, Phelps and his bad seed still wind up serving God just like the best of us. That is the theological sense Fred Phelps makes. His “negative sainthood” shows us that the worst wickedness is, in the end, powerless before grace and mercy.
Karl Barth in his Shorter Commentary on Romans (SCR) and throughout the Church Dogmatics (KD and CD) teaches that the Pharaoh of the Exodus who held the Hebrew children in abject slavery with a hard heart ultimately found himself broken upon God, who uses the story of Pharaoh’s human darkness to witness to divine mercy, standing right alongside Moses who testifies to God’s liberating justice. Barth writes, “Therefore Pharaoh too serves ‘the power of God’ (SCR, 73). Barth struggled against anti-semitism and fascism with a theological strength we need to deal with homophobia and transphobia. Like the contrasting pair of Pharaoh and Moses, Barth talks about Judas Iscariot and Jesus. Barth writes that Judas, the “rejected man,” is the best pattern he can find of a person who rejected goodness, going so far as to pronounce judgment on himself, and joining Jesus in death. Yet every “rejected one” remains a witness to God, who in the end shows that the very amazing grace upon which the future depends is also there for the “rejected,” too. Barth declares: “The rejected man exists in the person of Jesus Christ only in such a way that he is assumed into His being as the elect and beloved of God . . . With Jesus Christ the rejected can only have been rejected. He cannot be rejected anymore” (KD II/2, 502; CD, 453). Fred, too!
So, does that mean that Pharaoh, or Judas, or Fred get a pass on what they do, thanks to some sort of weak-kneed universalism, the idea that God saves everyone regardless? Barth denied such a possibility: “The Church will not . . . preach a powerless grace of Jesus Christ or a wickedness of men which is too powerful for it. But without any weakening of the contrast, and without any arbitrary dualism, it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it” (KD II/2, 529; CD, 477). Fred Phelps and Joe McCarthy and Judas Iscariot must, in the end, answer to the same justice and grace of God their words and deeds rejected when they refused to treat all of God’s children with justice and love. The deeds of the “negative saints” of God are terrible, and it is only right that they should somehow suffer. No one knows what Fred Phelps had to face from his excommunication or upon his sick bed. But Fred and Joe and Judas depend upon and bear witness to the divine mercy, also—just like Moses and Mary and Martin Luther King Jr.
Even a “Nemesis Saint” like Rev. Fred Phelps is a witness to the divine mercy. “Saint” Pharaoh, too. And “Saint” Judas. For all the saints, pro and con, testify to the grace and justice before which we are all alike in utter need. No one I know shows the impotence of wickedness or the need of divine mercy more than Fred Phelps. And in that way, at the very least, “Saint” Fred shows me something mysteriously awesome about the amazing grace of God.
Laramie, Wyoming – Fifteen years ago today, Matthew Wayne Shepard took his fatal ride with two young men from the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, and suffered the savage attack that changed the world–for LGBTQ people, for sure, since the issue of LGBTQ hate crimes murder would never be seen in the same way again–but most of all for his family, who have been embroiled in a struggle over the story of their elder son’s life and death. From the very beginning, powerful people saw Matt’s story as something they HAD to control. Anti-gay forces have consistently deployed journalists with an agenda: remove “hate crime” from the Matt Shepard story. Today’s popular revision of the motives for Matt’s murder is making sensational news, but it is actually part of a right wing cottage industry seeking to rewrite a history all the major law enforcement investigators are agreed about–Matthew Shepard was murdered because he was gay.
In 2011, Dr. Stephen Sprinkle, who visited Laramie personally to investigate the claims for himself, wrote a chapter about the determined effort to rewrite Matthew Shepard’s story, and excise the issue of anti-gay hate crime from it. Entitled “The Second Death of Matthew Shepard,” Sprinkle details how revisionists during the trial of Aaron McKinney, and later in the infamous creation of the muckraking 20/20 “special” (in which current revisionist Stephen Jimenez played a significant role as a re-writer), continue to attempt an undercut of the most effectively reported anti-gay hate crime murder in history.
Responding to this latest wave of revisionism seeking to warp the story of Matt’s death, the Matthew Shepard Foundation issued this rebuttal, reported in the New York Daily News. We at Unfinished Lives Blog could not agree more: “Attempts now to rewrite the story of this hate crime appear to be based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumors and innuendo rather than the actual evidence gathered by law enforcement and presented in a court of law.” ~ Matthew Shepard Foundation statement
As a tribute to Matthew Shepard and his courageous family, Judy and Dennis, his parents, and Logan, his brother, Unfinishedlivesblog.com shares this excerpt setting up the argument of Sprinkle’s thesis: that nothing can change the exhaustively investigated findings of the case. Matt Shepard died because of unreasoning hatred, heterosexism and homophobia. The full chapter can be read in Sprinkle’s award winning book, Unfinished Lives: Reviving the Memories of LGBTQ Hate Crimes Victims (Resource Publications, 2011).
Murdering Matt’s Story
“Revisionists are getting away with murder, working to change the subject of Matthew Shepard and alter the impact of his story for LGBT Americans. It is not just that they are trying to shift the conversation to something more palatable to the cheerful, “Good Morning, America” attitude so prevalent in this country. Another sort of murder is afoot. The revisionists are working to change how Matt is remembered—to revise his story into the image and likeness of what queer folk are to them: people of bad character, the sort of anti-saints whom Judy Shepard suggested face suspicion and revulsion. In science, if the epitome of a whole species is found to exist in a particular specimen, then that individual becomes the “holotype” for all that follow it. All other specimens are compared to the original that set the standard. Weaken the holotype, distort it, and you inevitably revise the meaning of everything else in its class.
“The public outcry at Matt’s cold-blooded killing meant the hate crime that cut his young life short became the holotype in the American psyche for all instances of oppression against people in the sexual minority. It also sent a chill into the bones of the religio-political Right Wing. Power to enact protection statutes for LGBT people coalesced around Matt’s death so swiftly that the Wingers feared anti-LGBT hate crime legislation might actually become law. Their strategy was to kill the story, or failing that, change the narrative. Cut the power of moral outrage out from under Matt’s murder, they reasoned, and they would blunt the mounting public sentiment for an end to anti-LGBT oppression.
“Since Matt’s story looms larger than any other account of anti-LGBT hate murder, attempts to discredit Matt and lessen the moral impact of his death are archetypal, as well. The first attempt to kill the story and change the subject was made public during the trials of Henderson and McKinney. With the death penalty staring down at them, they swore they had never intended to kill Matt—just rob him. Henderson and McKinney and their attorneys entered the primal homophobic defense ploy into the public record: Matt was actually responsible for his own murder. He hit on them in the pickup truck, making sexual advances. His abductors panicked, assaulted him without mercy, got on with their thefts, including his wallet, credit card and shoes, drove him for miles and tied him up in the remote Sherman Hills area east of Laramie, leaving him to die in near-freezing temperatures—wouldn’t anybody, in their situation?
“As absurd as it sounds, the ‘gay panic’ defense is a homophobic classic, and as the Matthew Shepard case shows, it can rise to dizzying heights of absurdity. In order for it to work, either in a court of law or in the court of public opinion, the gay panic defense must feed off of the irrational fear of homosexual latency, especially in males. Its fabricators bet that men are so terrified and insecure about their masculinity that making a charge of sexual aggression against a Gay hate crime victim will infect the prosecution’s account of the facts just enough to skew a verdict. It puts the victim on trial instead of the perpetrators.”
End of excerpt
Rest in peace, Matt. Your story does not belong to the revisionists. We who believe in Justice cannot rest…we who believe in Justice cannot rest until it comes.
Paris, Texas – Three alleged gay bashers in the horrific Reno gay bashing case will face hate crimes enhancement charges, as reported by the Paris Times and the Dallas Voice. A Lamar County Grand Jury on Thursday indicted James Mitchell Lasater III, 31, of Paris, Micky Joe Smith, 25, of Brookston,and Daniel Shawn Martin, 33, of Paris with one count each of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and two counts each of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury. Additionally, Lasater and Smith were charged as repeat offenders. Because aggravated assault is classified as a second-degree felony offense, the alleged offenders were eligible under the Texas Hate Crimes statute for hate crimes enhancements, and that is exactly what the grand jury elected to do. On October 30 in the early morning, 26-year-old Burke Burnett was savagely attacked by three suspects whom witnesses say were yelling anti-gay slurs as they beat Burnett senseless, stabbed and slashed his body with a broken beer bottle, and then heaved him bodily into a burning trash barrel. Burnett suffered stab wounds resulting in over 30 stitches, deep bruises and contusions, and second-degree burns over a good portion of his torso, legs, and arms.
The Dallas Voice broke the story with graphic photos of Burnett’s injuries embedded in the article, and the story took hold in national mainstream media. Burnett has been interview around the nation, as horror and interest increased in the story. Burnett told the Dallas Voice he is pleased with the course of the investigation, the arrests, and now with the efforts of the Lamar County District Attorney. WFAA Television reported Burnett came out when he was 15, and learned of the hate crime murder of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student slain in Laramie in 1998. “Matthew Shepard is one of the reasons I came out of the closet,” Burnett told WFAA. “I’m so glad my fate did not end up like his.” He has no doubt about why he was targeted for violence, since the trio knew his was gay. As he sat in a chair at a private Halloween party in Reno, a small town near Paris, Texas, the men attacked him from behind. Burnett said, “I ended up getting stabbed, burned and beaten pretty badly and I’m convinced they were trying to kill me.”
Since few hate crime attacks against Texans are actually charged under the state hate crimes law, the decision of law enforcement and the grand jury to go forward with hate crimes charges against Burnett’s alleged bashers is significant. Since “sexual preference” was included as a protected category in the state statute in 2001, better than 2500 hate crimes have been committed, by fewer than twelve have actually been charged as such. Now that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act became federal law in 2009, allowing the Department of Justice and the FBI to involve themselves in investigating and prosecuting anti-LGBT hate crimes around the nation, Texas officials seem to have felt pressure to act more transparently and boldly on hate crimes cases in the Lone Star State.