Hatred in God's Name

Judy Shepard, mother of murdered gay teen Matthew Shepard, is determined to use her grief over her son's death to make a difference. She is now speaking to audiences nationwide about what they can do to prevent hate crimes in their schools and communities. To find when she might appear in your community or to sponsor her appearance, contact Allison Kenney at Keppler Associates, at 703.516.4000 or visit www.kepplerassociates.com. -- Ed.

Seeing it felt like a blow to my gut. My eyes immediately stung with tears, the kind that grip the corners of my eyes, refusing to fall. I came across it while researching the Internet for information on Matthew Shepard.

There wavering on my screen was an image of Matthew Shepard's disembodied face frozen in a sad expression engulfed in animated flames. The words jumped off my monitor: "Matthew Shepard has been in hell for 838 days. Eternity -- 838 days = Eternity." Even the URL made me grimace -- www.godhatesfags.com.

On October 7, 1998, Judy Shepard's world shattered. I can't begin to imagine her pain at knowing how her son Matthew suffered, just because two sick young men hated gays, found a victim on which to unleash their rage, and left her son Matthew to die on a Wyoming fence.

I remember seeing Judy Shepard on TV. She said, "In a perfect world, because your child is gay, you don't worry about their safety." A chill ran through me. I couldn't help but try to imagine Matthew Shepard's terror, his parents receiving that awful call.

Even as I write these words, a sick feeling wells up in my stomach. My throat tightens. I feel ill; I know my 15-year-old son encounters hate almost everyday just because he happens to be gay.

All this I see in my head in gray-scale slow-motion: There's that punk at the mall who butts his shoulder, mouthing "faggot!" while delivering a threatening stare. There's that little jerk in his PE class that cracks "gay-boy" and "queer" every time he thinks the coach can't hear him, but their classmates can. There's the popular senior football players that "don't mean anything, Mom" but yell "that's so gay" down the school halls. This isn't directed at him, he assures me.

However, I imagine my son looking at his shoes, his face turning red. I try to understand what this does to him inside. I try to figure out what I can do to reverse it. But mostly, I just try to discover how to keep him safe, safe from hate, safe from violence, safe from suicidal depression. (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that lesbian and gay youth are two to six times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth and account for up to 30 percent of all completed suicides.)

After stumbling on the extreme right-wing "Christian" (Westboro Baptist Church) hate site, a strong urge came over me. I went to my photo album. I wanted to look at my favorite pictures of my son. He's about five, dressed in red pants and blue blazer with a little red bowtie. A top hat rests on his head, a thin black mustache penciled above his baby smile. This kid came out of me in costume. This time he was a ringmaster. Greta, his dog, played his lion. In another favorite snapshot, he's in his Cub Scout garb, proudly displaying his new "Bear" manual. He'd fulfilled the "Wolf" requirements.

It wasn't until July 13, 2000 that my son came to me visibly upset: pale, muscles clenched, wringing his hands. "Mom, I have to tell you something." It felt like one of those electric-charged, life-changing moments.

"Mom, I'm gay," he cried. I took him in my arms. I was shocked at the level of shame that came pouring out of him. Why has this kid absorbed so much shame? I wondered. I tried to convince him that I loved him no matter his sexuality identity. I joked that I was just relieved that he didn't reveal he was a Republican. Afterward we both cried, mostly out of relief. But inside I felt terror, not for AIDS, but something else. My maternal instincts buzzed: gay-bashing was my first and still persistent fear. Parents, you know that minor alert or concern you start to feel around the time your teen is due home from a date? That concern has certainly multiplied since my son's revelation. The phone ringing when he's out with friends makes me hold my breath.

I know a culture that lets groups vilify and marginalize others because of sexual orientation breeds hate crimes. What's inexcusable is that much of the hate speech tries to pass itself off as "religious." Focus on the Family sponsors a conference at which attendees learn to overcome the "pro-gay" movement in schools. It's infuriating to me that these folks try to pass off condemnation of others as "God's will." What does it mean for my son if any of his teachers attend these conferences? How does it feel to be a child target in organized religions' political crusade?

My son regularly reacts by stating that he hates church, despises Christians. I try to convince him that it's only a very vocal minority who are confusing their own political agenda with God. There are plenty of good Christians who are not homophobic, not hatemongers. The God who created this world loves you, I tell him. I'm sure misguided people like the Westboro Baptist Church and the Family Research Council make God sad. I try to point out kind things my son has done. You be proud of you. You worry about how you conduct yourself, I say. The Dr. Lauras, the Christian Coalitions, the Pat Robertsons, they are wrong to vilify gays and lesbians, I continue.

But secretly, sometimes I too feel worn down by their tactics and by their sheer numbers, worn down because we have a new President who refuses to support hate crime legislation. I feel disgusted that my son can turn on the radio to hear Dr. Laura Schlessinger, riding atop her moral high horse, screeching that my son is a sexual deviant because he is gay. I want to screech back; I want to give into my rage. Yet, hate breeds hate: I remember all that responsible parent stuff and know that it is my duty to temper my anger.

Still, I worry and wonder: How did our society cause Matthew Shepard to suffer before those punks pistol-whipped him and left him for dead? How does our society breed hate? But more importantly, what can we do to change it?

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