Today marks 14 years since the day we lost Matt Shepard. I know from the conversations I’ve had with many of you that those terrible days in October 1998 echo in your memories: where you were, how it felt, the fears, the outrage and the questions you were left with.
Why does hatred still stalk our community, you have asked. Why can’t we be left in peace to be who we are? Is it ever going to change?
We have wrestled with those questions for all these years, too. Matt’s mother and father continue to try to answer them as best they can as they travel the country, and now more of the world to speak to LGBT community members and even more importantly, their allies.
Hatred is powerful, and learned. Hatred is not reasonable, and people can seldom be reasoned out of beliefs they weren’t reasoned into in the first place.
But social forces can work against hatred just as they have worked in its favor for centuries. And so that’s where we at the Foundation have felt our shoulder fits best to the wheel: creating social momentum that pushes hatred aside in favor of understanding, compassion and acceptance.
Matt means a great deal as a memory, a lesson and a tragedy to millions of people. To a relative handful of us, he means those things too, but also a person missing from our daily lives as a son, or a friend, or a classmate, or a fellow activist.
Some of you have heard my story of how I met Matt at a little birthday party in Casper, Wyoming, a long time ago now all of a sudden. He recognized me as a reporter for the local paper and gave me an earful (I have since learned he enjoyed that) about how we weren’t covering the human rights crisis unfolding in Afghanistan.
Sure, it was a small paper, but surely, Matt argued, we had a responsibility to inform people what the wire services were reporting on the Taliban and its cruel rollbacks of freedom and dignity for women in that largely ignored country.
It was around 1997 or 1998 and Americans weren’t thinking about Afghanistan or the Taliban much then. But in a country where girls could once attend school and women had at least a sliver of individual autonomy, a severe religious law backed by deadly force was eroding that progress on human rights. And Matt was outraged by it.
Our friendship was short because of his senseless murder. But I came to know that concern about human rights, and especially those of women in the developing world, was something that really disturbed Matt and made him itch to do something about it. And we all now know he was wise to worry about the danger the world could face from the zeal and hatred at the heart of these abuses.
When this week rolls around every year, people all over the world remember Matt and the wrong that was done to him out of anti-gay hatred. We look hopefully at improvements in gay rights and the culture of our country and sense at least a grim appreciation for the power this movement has gained to improve our lot.
A few of us also think about Matt the person and what the world lost with the removal from our midst of someone so passionate about human rights and social change and wonder what he might have been able to contribute.
This week I have watched the tragedy and outrage about a senseless crime of hate swell and boil over in Pakistan and cannot help but think of Matt.
Fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai is someone that I just know Matt would have thought was boundlessly promising and wonderful. She has been famously outspoken against militants’ attacks on the right of girls to go to school. She blogged about her classmates’ anxieties, and talked about setting up her own school. She won a national peace prize from the prime minister. This is the change Matt wanted for women in her part of the world.
She was cruelly targeted with death on a school bus in Mingora, where the Taliban has stubbornly struggled to project its power at all costs. A gunman asked for her by name and shot her. She’d already been named on a hit list.
At this writing Malala still clings to life, and disgust at this violent effort to snuff out a powerful voice is spreading across the country and the world. We are praying for her and for her country. I hope you will too.
This is what Matt was worried about. This is what happened when Matt was killed. We are the ones left to do the hard work that makes this world a place where this doesn’t have to keep happening. We have to be up to the challenge every day because the hatred clocks in every day as well.
We at the Foundation have a role to play because of all of you who have supported our work with your encouragement, your individual voices, and yes, your donations. We thank you for all you have done to Erase Hate. And if you are in a position to provide additional support for our work, please do so today as we begin another year of remembering Matt and safeguarding his legacy.