I was 17 and did not know a single openly gay person when Matthew Shepard was murdered 25 years ago. I most certainly knew closeted gay people. As a friend who came out after high school told me once, “We definitely didn’t tell anyone. You kept it to yourself.”
And no wonder. All through middle and high school, we threw around words like “gay” and “faggot” in mock derision, teasing one another with what we had internalized as an insult. Even when we began to suspect one of our friends might be gay, we didn’t stop using the terms or consider how our language might be affecting our friend. Matthew Shepard’s death was a horrific event that reached us even through our adolescent self-absorption. But it still felt abstract and removed from our immediate experience. We didn’t connect our casual bigotry with the pain it caused our friend, and certainly not with hate crimes.
It is only now, after working specifically with young LGBTQ+ people in a public Wyoming high school that I realize how brutal we were, and how the hateful rhetoric we are surrounded by lays the foundation for targeted violence and hate crime.
Similar words are still thrown around in schools today. In Lander’s middle and high schools, LGBTQ+ students are still surrounded by language that indirectly and directly attacks them. “Gay” is still a word used by some for anything undesirable, books with LGBTQ+ themes and characters are openly ridiculed, and students who are queer and out have been repeatedly barked at. These students live under constant anti-LGBTQ+ radiation, and if you speak to other queer students around the state, virtually all describe the same atmosphere.
Ask a young person who identifies as queer how they are doing and they’re likely to respond, “existing.” Sometimes this is said in tones of proud rebellion against a large part of society that deems them somehow unnatural. Sometimes it comes in quiet voices that betray the enormous strain of the weight they are carrying. Once in a while “existing” is delivered in a cracked, desperate sob that means “existing … for the moment.”
You don’t always hear these emotions unless you are close with young LGBTQ+ people. In truth, you don’t know, not really, just how vulnerable and dangerous it is to be out and queer as a young Wyomingite.
It is not difficult to imagine a modern murder, à la Matthew Shepard, taking place in Wyoming today.
But maybe a single murder is too old fashioned. After all, we live in the age of mass shootings and that new language is also used in our schools. I have had the doubly chilling experience of helping an LGBTQ+ student file a credible report of another student calling the Pride Picnic his “shooting grounds,” followed by an active shooter training in which I was peppered with Nerf bullets. It has been less than a year since the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, and only a few months since a group of masked white supremacists showed up at our local Pride Picnic in an overtly threatening display.
These vocalized threats are a precursor to a hate crime. And while very few of us here in Wyoming would agree that violence is permissible against people with different beliefs than your own, there are more than a few people here who are complicit in creating the hostile state that has enveloped our queer community like a poisonous gas and opened us up to targeted hate attacks. This isn’t new — anyone who is part of or connected to this community has likely experienced some level of this their entire lives.
What is new is the amount of extreme aggression we are seeing from some of those elected to power. There is currently an inhumane attempt by some of our representatives and community leaders to quash LGBTQ+ voices and perspectives, especially in schools. We have politicians and school board members crafting policy to ban teachers from using LGBTQ+ language, to criminalize librarians for checking out sex education books that include LGBTQ+ identities, and to limit or exclude teaching of LGBTQ+ perspectives altogether.
The openly stated animosity and the subtext of our public discourse is clear: To be queer is to be wrong.
So wrong, that even librarians and teachers are being demonized for upholding the very foundations of the institutions they represent, along with the fundamental American principles of freedom. Supporters are being named “pedophiles” and “groomers” who are “preying on confused children”.
These sentiments have their own obvious tragic gravity for the queer community, but the less obvious tragedy is how this dehumanizing language works to empower those whose views are extreme enough to do physical violence. There is a direct and linear relationship between hate speech and violent action, and the leaders who are vocally pushing an anti-LGBTQ+ agenda — and the leaders who are not pushing back against an anti-LGBTQ+ agenda — are implicitly encouraging violence against young queer people in our schools, whether they intend it or not.
The politics of the moment has somehow superseded the basic human rights and dignity of queer people and their allies.
There is a sad irony in all of these attempts to restrict and silence LGBTQ+ language in schools: it is hurting people and making their lives more difficult, but it isn’t working. The LGBTQ+ shift into public awareness has already happened, and its leaders are queer youth. LGBTQ+ language is their language — they are inventing it as they go, building a vocabulary to pinpoint exactly how they feel, and exactly who they are. There is an incredible freedom in doing this, a quintessentially American quality of self-definition.
This new generation is building a global community around their queer identity and around the freedom to be who they want to be. In Matthew Shepard’s time, this community existed, but was mostly underground. Now, more and more people are coming out and finding ways to live that are true to themselves. The community is vibrant and exceptional in the collective support and solidarity of its members. When you enter queer friendly spaces, especially with students, you notice the grace that is given to every individual. You notice the different ways that people are allowed to breathe. When students enter these spaces for the first time, they come alive. Many of them have never been in a place before where they could be themselves, and not be afraid. This sense of belonging should exist everywhere, but it does not.
When I think about my last 10 years in public education, my proudest contribution has been my work with young queer students. The essence of this work was simply listening to students talk about their lives and letting them know that they are cared for. Students came to me in times of celebration and in times of crisis, and I would describe our conversations as some of the saddest of my life and some of the most joyous of my life. I have an immense respect for how these young people are battling and overcoming the many unique challenges that come with being queer in a culture that is often hostile towards them.
The murder of Matthew Shepard gained Wyoming international notoriety, but we seem to have forgotten any lessons we may have learned about taking care of each other. If we wish to live in a peaceful society, we need to understand how the language of hate is fueling violence, and we urgently need to stop it.