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Posts for October, 2008

Today In History: Rest In Peace

Jim Burroway

October 16th, 2008

Ten years ago today, family and friends were gathering in Casper, Wyoming, to say their final good-byes to Matthew Shepard. Earlier that morning, Matthew’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, met with reporters before the funeral for a very brief public statement. Choking back tears, Dennis said:

On behalf of our son Matthew Shepard, we want to thank the citizens of the United States, and the people of the world, who have expressed their deepest sympathy and condolences to our family during these trying times. A person as caring and loving as our son Matt would be overwhelmed by what this incident has done to the hearts and souls of people around the world… We are honored and touched beyond measure…

Please understand and respect my family’s request for a private and dignified farewell to our son today. Matt’s family and friends, loved him deeply, and we need to share a quiet goodbye to him. Matt himself would have been the first to honor another family’s request if this had happened to someone else.

We should try to remember that because Matt’s last few minutes of consciousness on earth may have been hell, his family and friends want more than ever to say their farewells to him in a peaceful, dignified and loving manner.

By all accounts, Matt’s funeral at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church was peaceful, dignified and loving. Only selected friends and family were allowed to attend, in an attempt to keep the service quiet and private.

The scene outside the church was in equal parts dignified and circus-like. Crowds of mourners stood quietly in the gentle snowy weather to pay their respects, while police, reporters, photographers and satellite trucks buzzed around them.

A short distance away stood a contingent of protesters from Fred Phelps’ notorious Westboro Baptist Church. They were there holding signs that read, “God hates fags,” and “Matt In Hell.” But they were surrounded and shielded from the church by counter-protesters — for want of a better word — who fashioned large white bedsheets into giant angel wings.

While Westboro’s tactics were the most talked-about example of anti-gay extremism on display that day, they weren’t entirely alone. Ten years ago today also saw Robert Knight’s Family Research Council use the occasion of Matt’s funeral to denounce Phelps — and to boast about their part in the ex-gay advertising blitz that had begun the day before Matt’s murder. The FRC’s statement condemned Phelps’ tactics while sharing his message of condemning Matthew to hell:

While we share Mr. Phelps’ opposition to the homosexual political agenda, his belief that homosexuality is a sin, and his call for punishment of Mr. Shepard’s killers, we do not endorse his tactics, and have asked his group to stop letting themselves be used by the media to crudely caricature Christians.

The ‘truth in love’ media campaign reaches out to people struggling with homosexuality and offers them hope for change and redemption. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, homosexuals are included in a list of sinners, who, if unrepentant, will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Ten years have passed since Matthew Shepard has been laid to rest. Where are we at today?

One thing is undeniable. We’ve made great strides in changing how people view LGBT people. More people are “out” than ever before, living openly for the most part in relative safety.

And yet, too many things still haven’t changed. It is still legal to fire people from their jobs for being gay. Marriage rights are only secure right now in one state. Wyoming is one of twenty states which still does not have a hate crimes law to cover sexual orientation. And the federal hate crime statute still covers race, religion, and national origin — but not sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.

Yet official statistics continue to show that when hate crmes do occur against LGBT people, those crimes are more likely to be violent crimes when compared to other classes which are already protected.

In these ten years since Matthew’s death, we have continued to lose countless lives — singled out simply for who they were. We’ve lost Brandon Teena, Danny Overstreet, Phillip Walstead, Amancio Coralles, Satendar Singh, Scotty Joe Weaver, Daniel Fetty, Steven Domer, Roberto “Poncho” Duncanson, Sean Kennedy, Angie Zapata, Michael Sandy, Simmie Williams, Jr., and Lawrence King — just to name a very few.

As Judy Shepard has said on the tenth anniversary of her son’s death, so much has changed. Yet so much remains the same.

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