This piece originally appeared in a UVA student publication on October 22, 1998.

The "Meaning" of Matthew Shepard

You know your emotions are real when they surprise you. On Monday, October 12, I was driving to the law school when an NPR reporter said that Matthew Shepard had died. I felt unexpected tears in my eyes and a foreign lump in my throat. The only thing keeping my arms on the steering wheel was sheer will.

I wonder why this has struck me so deeply. I know it is partly because he was a college student, 21 years old. He didn't sound too different from myself. And I must admit, he was damn cute. For whatever reason, it is the charismatic ones who get the glory.

I wasn't sure I wanted to go to the local vigil in his memory, though. I don't consider myself an activist. People who shout make me uncomfortable, no matter their cause. Here's what I envisioned: I would go to the Rotunda at around eight o'clock Wednesday evening and find a group of people standing around with placards and candles; I'd see a microphone at which various members of U.Va.'s gay community would shout for passage of a hate crimes law, their voices echoing down the dark Lawn, while the crowd cheered enthusiastically in response. I thought I might even see a ring of hecklers.

Here's what happened instead. A few minutes before eight o'clock I walked up the west side of the Lawn toward the Rotunda, and I couldn't see or hear anything unusual. First I wondered if I'd gone to the wrong side of the Rotunda. Then it hit me that, with little publicity, probably only a paltry group of concerned students had showed up.

As I walked up the Rotunda steps, I realized I was wrong. Fifty or sixty people were sitting on the marble platform at the top of the Rotunda steps, forming a circle. Each person was guarding a small flame. I waited on a short line to pick up my own candle, and then I sat down next to a guy I'd never met. As I stared down into my small plastic cup and the flame rising up from the thick sliver of candle, I felt chilly, and I warmed my hands over the flame.

A few friends arrived and joined me, followed by more people. I was warmed by more than just the small flame -- it looked like 200 people had come. There were so many, in fact, that we had to move in toward the center so that more people could sit down behind us. Except for a few whispers and some traffic noise from University Avenue, it was quiet.

First I stared at my flame, but after a while its brightness blinded me, so I looked up at all the faces. I knew few of these people; I wondered how many of them were gay. I was sure that not all of them were, but I imagined that many of them had to be. Having only recently begun to come out to people, I knew few other gays or bisexuals at U.Va., and the thought that so many were sitting here made me feel good.

Some faces looked solemn; others, calm. Some people were looking down; some were looking straight ahead. Nobody seemed to feel the need to speak. Nearly two years before, I'd gone to a memorial service in Cabell Hall Auditorium for Sean Bryant, a fourth-year student who had hanged himself in his Lawn room; there was a similar atmosphere here. The difference was that none of these people knew Matt Shepard personally, but it didn't seem to matter. They all looked like they'd lost a friend.

The silence was broken by Jim Steichen, one of the vigil's organizers and a friend of mine. First he explained that the vigil was not being sponsored by any particular organization; indeed, I thought, you don't need to hold any particular political or social views to have been moved by such a brutal act. Then he explained that some photographers from the local news were there, and that people who did not want their picture taken should raise their hands. No hands went up.

Jim read some excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" and then his own statement, and then he opened the floor up for anyone to say what came to mind. After a few more minutes of contemplative silence, during which I stared down at my candle and closed my eyes, Vice President Harmon spoke in a resonating voice, followed by others. At one point I was startled by a woman sitting behind me. "Shame," she said in a steely voice. "Shame and anger."

There were others. One man spoke of a friend of his who had been attacked three years ago for being gay. A fellow law student, who had gone here as an undergraduate, spoke warmly of how far U.Va. has come since 1987 in its tolerance of gays. One woman said that she was trying to imagine how she'd have felt if Matt Shepard were her son.

Unfortunately, nobody can rest in peace today. The world is too noisy. On one side, people are using Matt Shepard's death to promote the passage of more state laws against hate crimes, and a federal law as well. On the same night as the vigil at the Rotunda, a larger vigil was held on the steps of the Capitol in Washington. Later that night I saw some footage on television: Dick Gephardt playing Al Gore playing Jesse Jackson, uncharacteristically but enthusiastically preaching that if Matt Shepard's death means anything, it means we need to pass these laws. As if more laws would help.

On the other side, bilious folk have been doing some preaching of their own, spewing out the usual anti-gay rhetoric. Last Friday, "Reverend" Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas, who hosts the website (that alone gives away the amount of his rationality) picketed Matt's funeral with his petty band of followers, including some little kids. The bad news is that this gave him more publicity; the good news is that it revealed him to be an idiot.

Excuse me, but are we forgetting that a young man died here? His death does not "mean" anything. His death stands for, well, his death. It is meaningless. His parents, more than anyone else, understand this.

Still, the natural human impulse is not to let chaos be chaos, but to find some meaning behind every event. Matt Shepard was killed not just by a pistol, but by words, and screams, and taunts, and punches, and epithets scrawled on posters and doors and walls every day.

It's easier to be gay today than it used to be. This is a world where you come out to your six housemates and none of them cares. This is a world where, theoretically, you can come out to a landlord and he will accept you. Of course, it's also a world where he can legally evict you if he doesn't.

Sometimes you have to wonder what the point is of arguing anything. The people you want to convert will refuse to listen to the meaning behind your words and twist everything you say, and those who agree with you -- well, they already agree with you. So the only people left to influence are the intelligent-minded ones who are receptive to logic.

Are there really people in the world who are immune to logical arguments? I refuse to believe that. I trust in logic. Few people make me angrier than those who ignore it in the face of their own stubborn beliefs; who refuse to shut up for a moment and genuinely listen; who are too afraid of opening their minds and saying "I was wrong."

Someone tells a story of discrimination, and someone else talks of God hurling hurricanes at Disney World. Someone asks to be treated equally, and someone else talks of "special rights." Someone considers suicide, and someone else scrawls "Die Fags" on a bathroom wall. It gets very discouraging. Sometimes I don't doubt why it's taking me so long to figure myself out. But I notice that despite all the vitriol, I am doing it.

In contrast to the vigil in D.C., the one on the Rotunda steps was nonpolitical. There were no members of Congress and no movie stars. There were just 200 concerned human beings, coming together to the mourn the death of another.

There has been too much noise lately. What I want to hear now is silence: people mourning, people thinking, people assessing their own views and beliefs. No more bile.

Everyone, take a deep breath.

That's it.

Close your eyes.

Breathe in slowly.

Breathe out.

Now open your eyes.

Stop talking. Listen to what you're saying.

Stop scrawling. Look at what you're writing.

Listen to each other. Learn. Don't be afraid to be proven wrong. And get to work.

Copyright 1998