October 12, 1998.
It was my 15th birthday. Many miles away in Fort Collins, Colorado another gay man six years my senior had just passed away. He had spent nearly a week fighting for his life. 18 hours of that spent tied to a wooden fence in Laramie, Wyoming. Matthew Shepard was killed because two men said that he hit on them (yes I’m aware of the unsubstantiated claims that came out later that aren’t worthy of mentioning further). To say he was a pivotal force in my own coming out process was an understatement. He had the courage to be openly gay in the midwest in the late 90s. I was struggling with feelings that felt at the same time both wonderful and terrifying. After his death, they felt a little less terrifying and a little more necessary.
What I remember most about that funeral was the juxtaposition of the symbols of hate and love. After all, the trial of Matthew’s killers (names I won’t repeat here) gave birth to the “God Hates Fags” movement. The Westboro Baptist Church gained national prominence for picketing this trial. That’s right. They stood outside supporting Matthew’s murderers with their signs that read, “Matt in Hell,” “Fags Doom Nations,” and “Thank God for AIDS” amongst many other lovely slogans. Everyday on the way into court, Mathew’s mother had to see these signs with pictures of her 21 year old son surrounded by Hell’s flames.
Sit and process that for a second. Her son was offered a ride home from a bar. Two men robbed him, and then pistol whipped him, fracturing his skull. When they found him, the only parts of his face that weren’t covered in blood were the streams left by tears. They then tied him to a fence like a scarecrow. He stood there for 18 hours in near freezing Wyoming weather. And here was this pastor and his congregation yelling at his mother about how much Matthew deserved this. They are the very worst of humanity…but they also brought out the very best in humanity.
People saw them and heard them including one Romaine Patterson who was so shocked by what she saw that she took it upon herself to form a counter protest, only these protestors would be silent and yet their protest would drown out the hatred shown by Reverend Phelps. She gathered a group of volunteers and together they created these angel costumes with 10 foot wingspans. They stood in front of the protestors and completely blocked them out, with smiles on their faces and not a word spoken.
I was reminded of them today. I had to rewatch that scene in The Laramie Project and shed more tears. This has been a very emotionally trying week for me. I live every day, also like Matthew, with major depressive disorder and a very overwhelming sense of empathy (one that no medication, legal or otherwise, can seem to calm).
This is 2018. We are living in a country that is separating children from their parents as they seek safety in a foreign land. These children come from countries where they live with the constant fear of being murdered or seeing their mothers raped or worse. Their parents do everything they can to get them here safely, including dealing with drug cartels and gangs along the way. One look at the map and you’ll see that Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador aren’t exactly a stone’s throw away from the US border.
They are entitled to come to the US seeking asylum. That IS the law. And, if they have, “credible fear” of returning, the law states that we are NOT allowed to send them back. But what do we do when they get here? We change the law on them so that what used to a be a misdemeanor civil violation is now a federal crime (that’ll make being granted asylum so much easier). We lie to their moms and tell them that we’re taking them to shower only to have her never see them again. We separate a father from his family, throwing him into a deep depression that only suicide can get him out of. We literally rip a breastfeeding infant from his mother’s bosom.
Then comes the worst of the humanity. People take to their social media pages to defend this. Take a second and process that. There are people in this country who see nothing wrong with this, who think that they broke the law. Let’s go there for a second and say they did break the law. Does the punishment (separating families, perhaps indefinitely) fit the crime? The crime used to be akin to jaywalking. How many jaywalkers do you know that have had their children taken away?
I’ve seen many on facebook defend this. What shocks me is that they’re mainly white women. I don’t say that to put down white women or to paint the entire white female population as being brown kid grabbers. That’s just been my experience this week. In fairness, a majority of my facebook friends are women. I just don’t understand a woman condoning this. I don’t understand anyone condoning this.
This week I have taken part in the hatred. I have spewed back what was so easily spewed out. For that I’m entirely regretful. Because hatred begets hatred. I know this to be true. 19 year ago, Romaine Patterson had this to say about her angel protests, “Hatred is running rampant through our everyday lives. But as a group, we choose to lift ourselves above that hatred. We feel as so many others do, that love and compassion for our community and our humanity are the answers that so many people are desperately searching for.” I choke up reading her words just as I choke up thinking of those children who are being punished through no fault of their own with wounds we may never see.
When I see those facebook posts defending behavior that’s beyond repulsive I think of those, “AIDs Cures Fags” signs. To me, it is that level of hatred, or even worse, indifference. So I responded, very inappropriately at times. For that I am sorry. I didn’t lift myself above the hatred, I fell far below it. The truth is, all I want is Facebook to hide those posts behind white angel wings. Until then, I’ll close my eyes and imagine them there.
“And so we bring forth a message- from God, if you will: Love, respect, and compassion, for everyone is why we are here today. I could no longer sit idly by and watch others bring forth messages that were nothing more than vindictive and hate-filled. As a young person, I feel it necessary to show the great nation that we live in that there doesn’t need to be this kind of violence and hatred in our world. And that loving one another doesn’t mean that we have to compromise our beliefs; it simply means that we choose to be compassionate and respectful of others. With that said, I would like to now rejoin my angels silently, bringing forth our gift to you. If you have any questions, I will be available later today. Thank you for your time, and God bless.”
– Romaine Patterson, April 5th, 1999 during the trial of one of Matthew’s killers.