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Written by “Sam,” one of the contributing writers of Lead Them Home

Last week, I took a pilgrimage to the unlikely mecca of Laramie, Wyoming, to visit a single park bench on the University of Wyoming’s campus. Weaving through the maze of academic buildings, I checked the placard on every bench I passed until I found that one that reads:

Matthew Wayne Shepard

December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998

Beloved son, brother, and friend

He continues to make a difference

Peace be with him and all who sit here

Here, I sat.

It was October 6 — 20 years to the day when a biker turned onto a lonely dirt road on the edge of town and mistook Matthew Shepard’s barely-breathing body for a scarecrow. Eighteen hours earlier, 21-year-old Matthew had been kidnapped, tortured, and beaten by two peers. They tied him to a fence post and abandoned him to the frigid autumn night. Six days later, Matthew died of his injuries.

His offense: He was gay.

For 19 of those 20 years, I knew nothing of this story. In 1998 I was four, and Wyoming was as distant from my mind as the fact that I, like Matthew, am gay. It wasn’t until I moved to Cheyenne for work last year and simultaneously began the process of coming out that I heard about this hate crime.

To commemorate the anniversary, I drove I-80 west to Laramie and sat on Matthew’s bench to lament. But when I opened my journal to scribble my thoughts, my pen stopped just shy of the page. I had nothing. I, a gay man, could not mourn Matthew Shepard.

You see, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be turned into a scarecrow.

I’ve never experienced my gayness as a threat to my safety or well-being. As I let more people into my story, I receive more grace. Even though my current life position requires I write pseudonymously, timing, not fear, demands my silence.

But that was not Matthew’s world. Matthew’s murderers did not recognize any dignity in him. To them, his sexuality invalidated his essential humanity, so they stole it from him with the butt of a .357 Magnum pistol to the head. They took a man, bound him to a buck fence, and turned him into a scarecrow. They left him as they saw him: Unhuman.

But I recall that biker who found Matthew and, seeing the tear streaks through the blood on his cheeks, said, “This is not a scarecrow. This is a human.”

Perhaps that is the legacy of the two decades since Matthew’s death: Seeing human beings instead of scarecrows.

Now, I am no Pollyanna. The gunshots from Orlando still ring in my ears. Suicide and homelessness rates among gay teens are still sobering statistics. To this day, Wyoming —the “Equality State”— has no hate crime laws, and my boss could legally fire me for being gay.

But…

…the world is learning—learning to listen to the voices of sexual and gender minorities, to expel our murderous fears and embrace our common humanity, regardless of identity. Churches are beating their swords into plowshares to show costly, Christ-like love to LGBTQ+ people. And while gay people still face dehumanization and humiliation, more people are willing to stop and declare, “This is not a scarecrow. This is a human!”  

And so, with a heavy heart, I sat on Matthew’s bench and did not mourn. Instead, I dared to hope. Like Matthew, I am not a scarecrow. We are humans.

I read the inscription again:

“…He continues to make a difference

Peace be with him and with all who sit here.”

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