by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Ben Cartwright (in foreground)
San Diego Women’s Chorus
The annual commemoration of Matthew Shepard’s death on October 12, 1998 drew a sizable crowd of 300 people to the streets of Hillcrest for a nighttime march October 9 and a rally at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center thereafter, but the star of the event was a slightly built Queer refugee from Uganda. His message was that while in the U.S. the murder of a Queer man like Matthew Shepard is considered a despicable crime, in his country it’s social consensus and virtually public policy.
“This is my first time speaking on behalf of one of us, a friend, a brother whose life was taken in cold blood,” said Joseph Bukambe. “I was born in Uganda, and I’m Gay. I fight for Gay rights in Uganda and everywhere I go. I’m very familiar with hate crimes. The country I come from is one of the worst countries to be Gay. In my country, you get life imprisonment for being Gay. I’ve lost a lot of friends who were killed for being Gay. Me, myself, I was beaten up by my family. They tied me up. They wanted to kill me just because I was Gay. For a long time I walked around with scars on my body. At one time I thought I was worthless and useless, I couldn’t fit. People would see me and run away because they didn’t want to associate with ‘your kind.’ I used to go to church, and they would preach, ‘You’re going to hell. You’re not welcome here.’ So I grew to have a lot of hate.”
Bukambe said things started to turn around for him when he decided he wouldn’t let the hatred of his family, friends, churches and society define him. “One day I said I’m not going to live like this,” he said. “I’m not going to let them win. I’m going to stand up and tell the world what I believe. People used to call me a whole lot of names, and that’s not me. Now I say, ‘You don’t get to tell me what I am. I know what I am. I’m fabulous.’ Each and every one of us here is special in the eyes of God. I grew up in a church and I was taught a lot of lies: that I was going to hell, that God doesn’t love me, stuff like that. But as I grew up I got to know God in a special way, and now I know God loves all of us. He created us just as we are. He doesn’t make mistakes. People used to tell me I was a mistake, but I say, ‘No, I’m not a mistake.’”
Right now Bukambe is fighting for asylum in the U.S. “I ran away from my country because they wanted to kill me, as they killed a lot of my friends,” he said. “Right now my case is not going anywhere. If I lose, I’ll be sent back to my country to die. But I want to stay, and one message I want to leave with you is that there must be a voice and a face to our brothers out there who are living with discrimination every day, who are being killed every day, who don’t have a voice. So if we go out there and be a voice for each and every one of these people who have lost their lives or are still facing discrimination, we will make a difference and make the world a better place for each and every one of us.”
The annual Matthew Shepard remembrance in Hillcrest began five years ago, when community organizer and activist Ben Cartwright became concerned that 10 years after Shepard was killed, he’d been largely forgotten in San Diego’s Queer community. “In 2008, we realized it was 10 years since Matthew Shepard passed, and no one was doing anything about it,” Cartwright said. Though his case became a cause célèbre and his name was attached to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by President Obama in October 2009, Cartwright felt that Shepard’s life and cruel death should be commemorated in an annual march.
The first year, the remembrance ceremony took place in front of Obelisk Bookstore at the memorial plaque honoring John Robert Wear, who was knifed to death on the streets of Hillcrest in 1991 by Queer-bashers who thought (wrongly, it turned out) that he was Gay. Later the event expanded to a march from Fifth and University to the Center, though it always stopped for a ceremony to place candles and flowers at the plaque. But the building housing the Obelisk burned in July 2011, and the construction crews working to rebuild it have blocked off the part of the sidewalk containing the plaque.
“On December 10, 1991 John Wear and his friends were on their way to Soho [a then-popular coffeehouse in Hillcrest],” said a speaker identified only as Eric, but also known as Sister Iona Dubble-Wyde of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “They were attacked by three men and John was stabbed and died three days later.” He said he wanted people to know what that plaque meant and not just walk over it on their way to somewhere else. “We want people to stand up for each other’s rights and not be a stereotype,” Eric said. “The first thing is to come out, and the second is to register and vote.”
“Our biggest hope is to inspire and conquer,” said Cartwright, who added that San Diego Remembers — the official name of the organization he formed to sponsor the Shepard commemorative — “is the first program, group or board a lot of these people have been in. Some of them have since joined other boards.” One group he particularly pointed out to is the San Diego support organization for the Trevor Project, a nationwide organization aimed at keeping Queer young people from committing suicide.
The program also featured a song by the San Diego Women’s Chorus, whose conductor explained that the song, “What Matters,” was written by singer-songwriter Randi Driscoll directly in response to Matthew Shepard’s murder. “She sent it to the Shepard family as her personal condolence,” the chorus’s leader said. “It was later released as a benefit for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and has since raised over $15,000. Randi has said that this song is a testament to Matthew’s life, the Shepard family, and the unconditional love they represent. We hope this song inspires you to live more freely, cry more openly, and love more deeply. And just remember, in the end, all that matters is your love.”