Sunday, October 17, 2010
Over 200 Turn Out for Matthew Shepard Memorial
Marchers Converge on Obelisk, Center from Both Sides of Hillcrest
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Marchers on their way from 5th and University to Obelisk; Ben Cartwright and Rudy Cervantes; Assemblymember Lori Saldaña; Terry Summers; Russell Bui; Josh Scarpuzzi; Wendy Sue Biegeleisen; Bobby Lute; Jason
When Ben Cartwright and Rudy Cervantes organized their first memorial for Matthew Shepard in Hillcrest on October 12, 2009 — 11 years to the day after Shepard’s death — only a handful of people turned out. This year, over 200 people took to the streets of Hillcrest, converging from opposite directions for a preliminary rally and candlelight vigil at Obelisk Bookstore and a long program at the Center. “This is the proof that we had a powerful idea,” Cartwright said at the opening of the Center rally. “We will continue doing this until all hate is gone.”
The Shepard memorial on October 12, 2010 took place amid a growing number of events suggesting that the day when all anti-Queer hate is gone is still very far away. At least six Queer teenagers had recently killed themselves, largely as the result of anti-Gay bullying from their peers — including 19-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, whose roommates wired his room with a hidden camera, filmed him having sex with a man and posted the images on the Internet. Other Gay men had been targeted by bashers, including one gang who assaulted someone leaving the iconic Stonewall Inn in New York City, and a gang member was beaten virtually to death by his confederates once they realized he was Gay.
The organizers of the Shepard memorial — Cartwright, Cervantes and a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence identified only as “Sister Iona Dubble-Wyde” — dramatized the death toll. Over both march routes — one stretching west from Park and University, one going east from Fifth and University — they wrote on the sidewalk, in chalk, names of victims of Queer-related murder and suicide. Chronologically, their list started with Harvey Milk, San Francisco city supervisor murdered by a homophobic colleague in 1978, and ended with Seth Walsh, 13-year-old Fresno middle-school student who killed himself after being taunted by schoolmates over being Gay.
The preliminary rally was held in front of Obelisk Bookstore because it’s the site of the John Robert Wear memorial plaque, commemorating the death of a teenager in Hillcrest on December 13, 1991. He and two friends were assaulted with knives by a gang of young white supremacists based in the Casa Grande building in East Hillcrest (now known as the Marquis of Hillcrest). Though Wear wasn’t Gay — at least according to his friends, who were also stabbed but survived — he was targeted because he was young and out on the streets of Hillcrest at night.
“We’re here to remember everyone who died of hate and intolerance,” said Sister Iona Dubble-Wyde at the Obelisk rally. “We’re all proud that we’re here tonight, because there’s strength in numbers. Sometimes when you’re alone in school, you often feel that you’re the only one who’s getting picked on; you’re the only one who’s ever had people call you a name. But getting together lets us give people strength and lets them know that it’s going to get better. So think of those lights as your beacons of hope to let kids who are out there scared that it does get better.”
It’s wasn’t an accident that Sister Dubble-Wyde used the phrase “it gets better” as a recurring theme in her speech. It’s the name of a YouTube page, www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject, created by Seattle Stranger editor Dan Savage and his husband Terry aimed at convincing Queer teenagers not to kill themselves because if they live, their lives will indeed get better. They’re soliciting adult Queers who have made it through being bullied and survived to lead happy, satisfying lives to film testimonials for posting to the site. During part of a recent marriage-equality fundraiser in Hillcrest October 15, a camera crew was present to take down testimonials from anyone who wanted to contribute to the “It Gets Better” project.
Sister Dubble-Wyde admitted that she almost didn’t make it herself, though her chosen means of self-destruction was a slow-motion one — crystal meth — instead of a gun, knife, noose or leap off a bridge. “I tried my hardest, and I’m still here,” she said. “I’m here because I need to be. We all need to give hope to everybody else. If any of you would like to speak and share a story, either of yourself or anybody you know, I will go ahead and open up the mike.”
A young man named Bobby Lute was the first to take up the Sister’s challenge. He just moved to San Diego a year ago, after having grown up in Mississippi — not exactly the most hospitable place for a young man coming to an awareness that he’s Gay. “I was bullied in high school, but I actually had support from both my parents and my brother,” Lute recalled. Noting how many popular activities he’d been involved in in high school — including being a cheerleader and in the color guard, as well as playing football and baseball — until he came out as Gay, he moved to San Diego after his stint in the military because “I saw that it was comfortable and safe. I moved out here to be myself. … I’m happy that I’m living here now because all my friends are not only jealous, they see that I’m very highly comfortable being Gay in public, in the eye of everybody else.”
Another young man, who identified himself only as Jason, said, “I was originally invited on Facebook to come to this event, and I declined it, like I decline most events, because I’d rather stay home and watch my DVR. But then I remembered exactly why I’m here today. I’ve worked in Hillcrest now for 11 years, and the very first thing that brought me out here and got me involved with the group that used to be called GYA [Gay Youth Alliance] was when Judy Shepard [Matthew Shepard’s mother] came to Hillcrest.”
Jason recalled that he saw Judy Shepard speak at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest, near UCSD Medical Center, and “she said all these crazy, powerful things. Her son had just been beaten to death, but she still was there because she knew work needed to be done. And here I was, this timid little teenager. I came out to my parents through the newscast that night, because I was on the news, hugging Judy Shepard, and we were just bawling. I don’t think I stopped crying for a while after that. Shortly thereafter, I got off my damned ass and started volunteering. I got jobs here in Hillcrest, and now I can’t see myself doing anything but being out here and being strong, and being who I am.”
Another young man, who didn’t identify himself at all, said he was from Wyoming, Matthew Shepard’s home state, and that he came out at age 14 a year or two after Shepard’s murder. “I remember it was really emotional for me,” he recalled. “I was 13 or 14 but still pretty feminine. Everybody knew I was Gay. Whether you know it or not, everybody around you can pretty much tell. So I got made fun of a lot. One time I counted134 times in one day I got called ‘faggot’ or ‘queer’ or ‘butt-dart.’” Recalling from his childhood how much negative terms hurt him, he called on the people in the crowd to “be nicer to each other” and not use terms like “faggot” to refer to other Gays.
“There are places out there where people are like me as a kid,” the man from Wyoming said. “They fear going to school each day. They fear that they’re going to get attacked or called names. You just have to care about each other. I think Matthew Shepard was great. He really helped me come out. Even though he got killed, that showed me the inspiration. If he could die and people could know about him, I could do it, too.”
Fresh Stories at the Center
The following rally at the Center was unusual for several reasons. One was the cast of speakers; aside from an elected official, state Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, and the Center’s own political action coordinator, Carlos Marquez, most of them were unfamiliar people picked to speak because of their deep knowledge or involvement with the topic, not the usual community “names.” Even veteran activist Wendy Sue Biegeleisen, who’s been involved in San Diego’s Queer community for over 30 years, was on the program not to talk about her general experience but to admit that she herself attempted suicide three times between the ages of 12 and 14 — a revelation which shocked many in the audience used to regarding this self-proclaimed “loud, proud, Jewish pagan activist dyke” as a pillar of strength in the community.
“Every one of you is the change we need to see in the world,” Assemblymember Saldaña said. “It’s tragic when the start of a school year means the start of bullying. I wish I could have had a conversation with these young people to tell them it gets better, and that school should be a place of learning and a safe place. We learned with AIDS that silence equals death. We have to encourage the people being bullied to speak up. The tragedy is it takes the deaths of young people to make people aware that there is a problem.”
Saldaña cited one example from her legislative career that showed just how hard it sometimes it to get people to see that school bullying is a problem. She had heard of a young man who was attending a private school where he was being bullied. When his parents complained to the people running the school, their advice was that they should pull him out of the school and send him somewhere else. The parents not only did that, they moved — only the bullies at their child’s former school found out the family’s new address and continued the bullying. “The parents found they had no legal recourse because it was a private school,” Saldaña said.
She introduced a bill to make private school owners accountable for students who get bullied, and she got it through both houses of the state legislature — but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. One bill Schwarzenegger did sign, Saldaña explained, was one authored by openly Gay Assemblymember Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) giving students the right to leave school during the day to seek counseling — and not have to disclose to teachers or school authorities exactly why they’re seeking counseling.
“You are wonderful advocates to have those conversations with young people because you have been through those experiences,” Saldaña told the crowd. “I’ve worked with advocates to make the community safer, to increase awareness and understanding. Sometimes we’ve succeeded in Sacramento, and sometimes we realize we have to keep trying.”
Knowing Matthew Shepard
The next speaker was Tony Summers, former executive director of the Lambda Community Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, who was born in Matthew Shepard’s home town, Casper, Wyoming; attended the University of Wyoming at the time Shepard did and chaired its Gay student group; and met him at least three times after Summers graduated from the University of Wyoming and took the job in Fort Collins. He began by reading a letter from Judy Shepard in which Matthew’s mother hailed “the spirit of activism that has motivated you to fight for an end to violence for all.” Then Summers spoke in his own voice about what his association with Matthew Shepard — both before and after Matthew’s murder — had meant to him.
Summers said he first met Matthew Shepard when “he and his friends had driven down to dance at the two Gay clubs in Fort Collins. We talked about the student group, and he was eager to talk about the Lambda Center. Two months later, I met Matthew at a party. He was chatting about everything from politics to what guys on the campus were cute.” The last time Summers saw Matthew was the week before he was killed; this time he and his friends had chartered a limousine to make the trip to Fort Collins and the Tornado Club to dance. “He was funny, full of life and wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” Summers recalled.
The first word Summers got of Matthew’s fate was a news report on October 7 that “a University of Wyoming student” had been found, savagely beaten and tied to a fence. His intimation that it might be Matthew was soon confirmed. He was at his job at the Lambda Community Center “when the media barrage started,” he recalled. “We organized a vigil that evening and let the gatherers know what we knew, which wasn’t much. Later that night I heard about the extent of Matthew’s injuries and I cried like I never cried before. People gathered at the Center and they were scared.”
The assault on Matthew Shepard hit Fort Collins’ Queer community especially hard for two reasons. First, he was actually there; after he was found he had been taken to a hospital in Fort Collins, where doctors kept him alive for five days until his parents reluctantly ordered life support withdrawn and he died on October 12, 1998. Second, the city was in the middle of a controversial campaign because there was an issue on that year’s election ballot to add sexual orientation to the list of classes protected by the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance. Summers said he was hit with another media deluge when Matthew died, and he was also getting calls from members of Fort Collins’ Queer community at the Center. “The sadness and fear was overwhelming,” he remembered.
Matthew Shepard’s funeral took place October 16, 1998 in Casper. “We did the three-hour drive, and it started to snow on the way,” Summers said. “Fred Phelps and his followers were there to picket the service, and I encouraged our group just to ignore him. It was a beautiful service, and the tears flowed.” After the funeral, Casper was hit by a blizzard, stranding Summers and his friends from Fort Collins. “We were stuck in Casper and so we shared stories about Matthew,” Summers said.
“I am truly saddened by all the hate that still surrounds us,” Summers noted in closing. “I was also the victim of bullying in school, and I am a survivor of teen suicide. We must never forget the people killed because of their sexual orientation, their race or any other prejudice.”
Russell Bui, one of the event organizers, took time out from his duty running the projector — which showed slides giving the speakers’ names and presenting images of Matthew Shepard — and talked about his researches into Matthew Shepard’s death. His killers were found almost immediately; they were Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, both 21 years old and also University of Wyoming students. “They were known for their outgoing personalities and involvement in the meth scene,” Bui said. He said that on the night they attacked Matthew, McKinney and Henderson “had originally planned to rob a drug dealer,” but when they saw Shepard they figured he would have money and be an easier target.
McKinney and Henderson offered Shepard a ride home from a local bar, and on the way “Matthew put his hand on McKinney’s thigh and McKinney hit him with a gun and pistol-whipped him,” Bui said. The attack escalated and McKinney struck Shepard again and again with his gun, and eventually the two men tied Shepard to a fence and left him to die. Then they went back to Shepard’s apartment to rob it — only by sheer coincidence they ran into another pair of burglars, and the police were called and arrested all four men. The police eventually linked McKinney and Henderson to the Shepard murder from the revolver in Henderson’s possession, which still had Shepard’s blood on it.
“The outcome would indicate there was a targeted hate crime against Shepard,” Bui said. He admitted that Shepard and McKinney had known each other and both “were part of the drug scene” in Laramie, but said McKinney and Henderson brought up drugs as part of their defense “to play down the idea that hate was a motive.” McKinney’s attorneys also suggested that their client was himself Bisexual — there’s evidence that McKinney had had sex with men, but only as part of threesomes in which a woman was also present — “to play up a ‘Gay panic’ defense.” McKinney’s lawyers also said he had been a victim of child molestation, but, Bui said, “the defense could not ignore that Shepard’s sexuality had something to do with their motives.”
According to Bui, the long-term significance of the trial “was the definition of a hate crime.” Immediately afterwards, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act was introduced in Congress, making hate-related assaults federal crimes and also giving judges the right to impose longer sentences for crimes motivated by prejudice. But, despite the aggressive lobbying of Judy Shepard and other Queer and Queer-friendly activists, it still took over a decade for the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act to become federal law — and then only because the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress piggy-backed it onto another bill.
Survivors of Suicide Attempts
“I came out to my parents at 16 and I was thrown out on the streets by my parents two weeks later,” recalled the next speaker, Josh Scarpuzzi. “Later my parents had me kidnapped and sent to a Mormon camp, where I spent the next 365 days of my life and was subjected to humiliation and sexual abuse every day. Upon returning to my house, I was bombarded every day with Bible verses, Yes on 8 signs and harassment. I stood on the 163 bridge and contemplated ending my life. I’d had a recent breakup and I’d lost my family and friends.” The only thing that kept him from going over, he said, was that at the moment he was about to jump he got a call on his cell phone from Cricket Wireless reminding him that he owed $45 on his plan the next day; he joked that Cricket Wireless saved his life.
Scarpuzzi added that everyone in the room — even those who hadn’t suffered anywhere near what he had — “can all relate to discrimination. It took me a long time to forgive my family. Had I killed myself that morning, the pain would have lived on through the people who cared about me. I had to learn to accept myself and my family’s beliefs. Matthew Shepard’s life was taken from him because of an evil epidemic called homophobia.” But he also praised elected officials who volunteer at the Center for showing their support and validating the community. A writer for Gay San Diego who’s publishing in that paper a series of vignettes about his life, Scarpuzzi told his audience to “love each other, and above all love yourselves.”
“I am a sponsor of school abuse, molest and attempted teen suicide,” said Wendy Sue Biegeleisen, jolting many in the audience who have known her for decades and seen her as a tower of strength in the community. “I’ve seen a lot of the public-service announcements on the It Gets Better Web site, including the one of Tom Gunn of Project Runway, who admitted he attempted suicide as a teenager. It’s very important for us to confront the epidemic of school bullying, cyberabuse and teen suicide. We need to make our schools, churches, after-school spaces and playgrounds safe.”
Biegeleisen said her struggle to be accepted despite her differences from the norm began in first grade, when a teacher noticed she was left-handed and “tried to turn me right-handed in the traditional way — with a ruler. Thank goodness I was moved to another class, but I’d already learned being ‘different’ was bad. At seven my family moved to San Diego County and I tried to fit into my new school, but I was ‘different,’ and the teasing began.”
In the fourth grade, Biegeleisen said, she got jarred by another aspect of her life that was “different,” and that she couldn’t do anything about: her Jewish background. “My best friend came up to me and said, ‘You killed Jesus, and I’ll never play with you anymore,’” she recalled. “The bullying and teasing increased, and I responded by becoming active and loud. The teachers said I wasn’t ‘working to my potential.’ I didn’t find out I had a learning disability until I went to college. My parents didn’t care about my grades as long as I didn’t ‘act out’ in school.”
In junior high school, Biegeleisen recalled, “the verbal abuse became physical abuse. I was called every name in the book, from ‘ugly’ and ‘weirdo’ to ‘lezzie’ and ‘queer’ — before I knew what those terms meant. I kept my head down in gym class because if I were caught looking at another girl, the label would stick. I felt something so wrong with me I just wanted to escape the pain. I believed I was the horrible one.” So she tried to kill herself three times, and when she awakened from the last attempt “I felt like such failure because I couldn’t even kill myself right. I turned to self-medicating: drinking, taking my father’s Valium, smoking pot. I have not drunk or taken a drug in 23 years. I started early and ended early.”
The only thing that saved her, Biegeleisen said, was the arts. She sang and participated in college drama. “I had a couple of teachers in the arts who recognized that I was different, and that being unique and individual was a gift,” she recalled. “They assured me life would be better after high school. Now I’m a 51-yar-old radical dyke Lesbian feminist peace activist. I came out as a Lesbian in 1976 and realized I had a lot to offer ‘different’ people like me, and at 24 I realized I would not be in the closet anymore. I would go through life believing everyone I met would know I was a Lesbian, and act accordingly.”
The final speaker was Don Mitchell, head of the Stonewall Citizens’ Patrol, a volunteer group formed after a Queer-bashing attack on people leaving the 2006 San Diego Pride Festival. According to their Web site, www.stonewallcitizens.org , they work with the San Diego Police Department and serve as extra “eyes and ears” for the police. “Our main goals are to raise awareness, patrol the streets and educate our community,” Mitchell said. “We are all volunteers. None of us are paid. The time we give is our way of fighting for Matthew Shepard’s memory and for all the victims of hate.”