Seven-thousand one hundred and twenty-something days.
Time evades us when there is so much work to do, unless we stop to reflect on its passage. Since my son Matthew Shepard’s death on October 12, 1998, our family has worked tirelessly to do good work in his honor. We have traveled across the states, and in many cases, the globe, to tell his story and to discuss why hatred should not be an American value.
It can be difficult, especially around times like now. We are experiencing a moment in America that I fear cannot be taken back. I get nervous about the hateful rhetoric coming out of Washington and how that has caused bigots — let’s call them what they are — to come out from the shadows they have so long been hiding in.
Slurs, insults, and violence performed in the name of hatred are like toothpaste; they can’t be shoved back in once out. That is my biggest fear about this administration.
Something we have to remind ourselves, though, is that the rear view mirror is only a fraction of the size of the windshield for a reason. We must look forward if we want the progress our community deserves.
It is not enough to serve in the military openly when the President is trying to undermine it by singling out the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community – transgender troops.
It is not enough to be able to get married when it is legal in most of the United States to fire someone simply for loving whom they love. The “constellation of marriage benefits” is not and should not be treated as an illusion of stargazing, but as a fundamental human right.
It is not enough to say we are marching forward. We must put our feet in the streets. We must vote. We mustn’t be Silent, Indifferent, or Complacent in the face of hatred. That’s a SIC-ness we’ll forever be battling. Repeat after me: Giving up is not an option. What would have happened if we had given up?
The seeds of the Matthew Shepard Foundation were planted when Matthew was still in the hospital. People all over the country sent us emails and cards, and many asked the us to use the spotlight suddenly glaring upon us to reflect some light on the issues LGBTQ+ families were facing. People asked us to take the opportunity, while we had a voice, to let people see a family accepting their child who happens to be gay, and loving him like all the rest of their children; that there was really no difference.
Being an advocate in this movement has meant encountering both political leaders and everyday community members with different points of view, but we embrace this. I do feel that we’ve made progress, and we’ve made it in a really important way: changing hearts and minds at an individual level. To repeat something Dennis has made sure to say every time we address a crowd: When they go low, we go local. We can’t emphasize enough just how much elections matter. It’s the difference between someone who has the ability to effect change for the better and someone who is willing to be bought by our adversaries. It’s the difference between an idealist who wants equity for all minorities and someone who really is only looking after their own interests.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, changing federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by bias against a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Since the legislation passed in 2009, the Justice Department has charged nearly 300 defendants for hate crimes under multiple statutes. Without the Obama administration, I think we would still be treading water, trying to survive. He helped us advance tremendously. People in his administration totally got it; they understood. Not just about the gay community, but about anybody who felt marginalized.
Over the last two decades, we have been teaching the power of loud hope, of working to create a world that is safer and kinder for the next generation. If we make respect, for everybody, a primary part of education, we will advance past the ignorance that causes hate crimes. A lot of hate speech comes from ignorance. Folks don’t understand the differences amongst people, and they fear them; and that leads to anger and ultimately hate — and sometimes even violence.
If there is a message I could leave with people as we mark on our 20th year of this work this October, it is that we mustn’t give up. We may worship differently, love differently, dress differently, live in different neighborhoods. However, it is my deep belief that we are, at the core, looking for the same things.
Everyone deserves respect, love, and safety. Is that not the American dream?