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What Matthew Shepard's death taught America



Sunday, Oct. 12, was the 10th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. The 21-year-old gay college student was beaten, lashed to a wooden fence and left to die on a frigid night in Laramie, Wyo.

Four months earlier, three white men in Jasper, Texas, tied James Byrd, a black man, to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death.

Both murders remain terrible reminders of the fear with which gays and black still live. They inspired many states to enact hate crimes legislation. Congress voted in favor of a hate crimes law, but George H.W. Bush made it known he would veto the bill, so it wasn't adopted.

Still, a lot that's positive has happened in the last decade. Three states legalized gay marriage. The military's antiquated policy of discharging openly gay people seems destined to be rescinded. Racism appears to have become genuinely repudiated by most Americans, who seem ready to elect a black president. He's promised to sign a federal hate crimes bill and to support efforts to extend anti-discrimination protections to gay people.

For many gay people – especially boomers like me – the anniversary of Shepard's death was a reminder of our own difficult youth and the very real danger of coming out.

I was a late bloomer. I foolishly married a woman at 20 and divorced five years later. I was living in Augusta at the time and began paying regular visits to the only gay bar there. It was called the Peacock Lounge. It was a complete dive, located on the Fort Gordon Highway.

The bar had a jukebox and a couple of pinball machines. The owner was an obnoxious drunk who was in the habit of getting on a microphone and ranting incoherently. Occasionally, he would single me out for public chastisement because: a) I was very shy, and b) I never hooked up with anyone.

Besides beer, paranoia in those days was my closest companion. I was editing the weekly newspaper in a nearby small town, as I had in two other towns. At one point, I made extra money by taking pictures of crime scenes for the sheriff.

One of the most horrific of those was of a middle-aged man who had been murdered and stuffed in a culvert. Although I had no good reason to think so, I concluded he was gay (similar to the experience of Ennis in Brokeback Mountain). As I became more conscious of my sexual impulses, the more catastrophic my worldview became.

That wasn't helped by a state trooper, who approached me outside the Peacock one night. Several people had told me that police actually recorded license plate numbers in the club's parking lot. The trooper exploited all my paranoia by telling me he knew I was a newspaper editor. He suggested I take a ride with him to talk things over. Quaking, I agreed, and, of course, he turned into my first regular gay playmate.

I think about my terror when I got in the trooper's car and the apparent ease with which Matthew Shepard – openly gay and politically active – got in the car when two men offered him a ride home. I think about how my experience turned into months of real-life pornography, while Matthew was robbed and lynched. My body was taught new forms of pleasure. His was tortured.

I think about my descent into addiction and my recovery, while Matthew never got a chance to deal with his drug problem. I think about the way my own political activism became fueled by the resurgence of overt hatred of gay people when the AIDS epidemic arrived. I think about Matthew being HIV-positive himself and that his dying, not his activism, made an huge impact.

I also think about how Matthew's nightmare occurred almost 20 years after I came out, which reminds me, too, that societies don't always evolve. They often fall back into barbarism. Hate crimes legislation is one way we can remind ourselves not to do that.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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