With Fresh Eyes ...

Hate Amplified

By Rich Nelson

Twenty years ago, on October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, tied to a fence post and left in a desolate area outside of Laramie, Wyoming. He was driven there by two young men who tricked him into leaving with them after an encounter at a bar. He was found by a biker eighteen hours later, unconscious, his face caked with blood, tear stains on his cheeks. Six days later, he died. After their arrest, the attackers characterized Shepard in vile homophobic terms. It was an unspeakable hate crime that reverberated worldwide.

Dennis and Judy Shepard had feared for their son Matthew’s safety after he came out as gay. In death, they feared for him again, that, if they were to bury their son, his gravesite would be desecrated. Instead, for the past twenty years, they have kept their son’s ashes close to them. They have tirelessly traveled the country to promote protections and support for LGBT individuals. They were present in October of 2009 when President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act, adding federal protections against crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Lost in the somber headlines of these past weeks was a special invitation extended to the Shepard family which gave them a final sense of closure with Matthew. I leave that for the end, to complete this narrative on a reassuring note.

In just the past weeks, we have been consumed by horrific headlines. Two African-Americans, Maurice Stallard, 59, and Vickie Lee Jones, 67, were killed at a grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky on October 24 after the gunman was first unable to gain entry into a predominantly African-American church. In the store parking lot, during the carnage, the gunman walked by a white bystander crouching by a car and said, “I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t shoot whites.” Hate crime charges are pending. Three days later, eleven people lost their lives at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The gunman shouted anti-Semitic slurs during the shooting. Cesar Sayoc, accused of mailing pipe bombs to high profile Trump critics during this same period, possessed a van plastered with hateful and threatening words and images.

How does such hate germinate? Hate originates with words. Hateful rhetoric dehumanizes. Treating people as “less” sets a tone, giving license to some to say and do things toward individuals and groups they otherwise might not consider. Nativism at its rawest bubbles to the surface. In the past two years, we have been witness to a rise in recorded incidents of racial profiling and hate crimes based on race, nationality and sexual orientation. Reflecting on both the horrific crime that ended his son’s life and the current hostile climate, Dennis Shepard said, “Hate, of all kinds, is just below the surface. It erupts into the public view when the haters are allowed to come out in public and demonstrate their hate in words and actions.”

Accompanying all this have been threatening chants at campaign rallies, personal character attacks, and the demonization by the president of refugees as invaders and thugs.  It simply is fearmongering at its worst. Those with a bullhorn have the responsibility to tout the American moral ideal of an accepting and just nation. Right now, it is sorely lacking and must be reclaimed.

Yet, we look for hopeful signs. The invitation offered to the Shepards is worth noting. On October 26, Matthew’s ashes were interred in the crypt of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., an honor bestowed on a select few. The Cathedral granted this to the Shepard family, a gesture which now provides solace and resolution to many among us. The Reverend Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop, concluded his homily at the Cathedral’s internment service by turning to the urn containing Matthew’s ashes and saying “Gently rest in this place. You are safe now.”

Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com