Today In History: “Something In the Culture”

Jim Burroway

October 13th, 2008

I hadn’t planned on posting another installment, but I just happened to run across this at the library Sunday. It’s from the Winter 1998/9 edition of the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review. Ten years ago today, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) rose on the House floor to address the chamber on the need to amend the Federal Hate Crimes law to include sexual orientation. A portion of that speech was adapted as an op-ed in the HG&LR.

Recently a very decent young man was brutally murdered by two savage individuals. I am particularly struck by this, because — given the reason that those two mentally and morally deformed individuals murdered that young man — it could have been me. Had I, alone and unarmed, confronted these two thugs, I could have been subjected to the same brutalization that Mr. Shepard was in Wyoming, because his crime was to be a gay man. Something in the culture in which these two young men grew up led them, without an ounce of humanity, without a scrap of decency, to set upon this young man with a weapon, beat him, and leave him not quite dead, but at the point of death, alone, and in a way that added further his torment.

I am encouraged by the number of people who have spoken out against this savagery. I am optimistic, having spoken with leaders on both sides in the House, that we will take an important step and add to the Federal hate crimes legislation a provision that would say that if a young man who happens to be gay, as I happen to be gay, is set upon by thugs in the future who are so consumed with prejudice as to lose any shred of their humanity and kill him, that in appropriate circumstances, if the Attorney General found that certain very stringent requirements were met, and if a Federal presence were necessary, the Federal presence could be there. So, I hope we will add this to the legislation now pending.

But we need to go beyond that. I do not argue that those who have been critical of various proposals that gay and lesbian people have put forward are guilty of murder or of even creating a murderous climate. But this savage murder does call us to the need to improve what we as a society do to protect other young Mr. Shepards from this kind of brutality in the future.

In particular, we have debated on the floor of this House measures whereby Members have sought to penalize secondary schools for setting up programs to that do two things. First, they would offer protection to the young gay men and lesbians who find themselves tormented and abused and sometimes physically assaulted in school. Second, some of these schools would try to teach young people in their teens that brutalizing people because they don’t like their sexual orientation is not acceptable human behavior.

I hope that one thing that will come out of this terrible murder will be a cessation of those efforts to prevent schools from trying in turn to prevent this kind of behavior. It is not random that the terrible murder was committed upon a gay man, and it is shocking that a 21-year-old and a 22-year-old could be so bestial in their attitude toward a fellow human being. These are people not long out of high school themselves. This underlines the importance of allowing educators to deal with prejudice. We talk about teaching values. But when some talk about teaching the value of tolerance, when some talk about condemning violence based on someone’s basic characteristics, we are told we cannot do that. We have been told that we cannot let a school teach acceptance of the gay lifestyle. Think about that: What does non-acceptance mean? If acceptance is interpreted to mean approval, then I don’t care about it. There are bigots in this world whose approval holds no charms for me. But when non-acceptance means not accepting someone’s right to live, we have a serious problem.

If the two murderers who so brutally beat Mr. Shepard and left him to die – if they had been in a school system in which people had taught that gay men and lesbians were human beings with a right to live, maybe this would not have happened. Maybe teaching people to accept differences, not in the sense of becoming their advocates or supporters, but in refraining from this sort of assault, would be a good thing. Ad so we will return to this. I hope we will, in the piece of legislation that’s about to wrap up this session, adopt the hate crimes statute, and I hope we will no longer see in this House efforts to harass and penalize educators who understand the importance of trying to remove from young people’s attitudes the kind of hatefulness that led to this murder.

The Republican Congressional leadership of Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich refused to allow an appropriate amendment to the Hate Crimes law into this bill, so it died for the year. Ten years later, Federal law continues to provide hate crime protections on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, but not sexual orientation.

Also ten years ago today, vigils were held around the country and the giant rainbow flag in San Francisco’s Castro district was lowered to half staff. And Fred Phelps, of the Westboro Baptist Church, announced that his clan would be protesting at the funeral.

See also:
(Oct 16) Today In History: Rest In Peace
(Oct 13) Today In History: “Something In the Culture”
(Oct 12) Today In History: Matthew Wayne Shepard (Dec 1, 1976 – Oct 12, 1998)
(Oct 11) Today In History: The Vigil
(Oct 10) Today In History: Armbands and Scarecrows
(Oct 9) Also Today In History: Details Emerge
(Oct 9) Today In History: “We Just Wanted To Spend Time With Him”
(Oct 8) Today in History: Two Men Arrested
(Oct 7) Also Today In History: Another Assault In Laramie
(Oct 7) Today In History: “Baby, I’m So Sorry This Happened”
(Oct 6) Today In History: Before Matthew Shepard

Brady

October 13th, 2008

Jim- thanks so much for posting this serious. The postings were eloquently written and recalled both the tragedy and Matthew’s life with great care.

David

October 14th, 2008

Just to clarify, Barney Frank is a Democrat from Massachusetts (not a republican) and my Congressman.

Jim Burroway

October 14th, 2008

Oh good lord!!! Of course, I knew he’s a Democrat. I can’t believed I pulled such a FoxNews like that!

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