I had planned on writing about my upcoming travel to gather with fellow poets laureate in NH, and then going to NY (“Sounds like a week of unmitigated joy,” Ken said), but as I sat down to write, I saw this call to remember Matthew Shepard on facebook, and my heart broke open. I remember hearing the news 13 years ago about how this young man, simply and only because he was gay, was brutally beaten, tortured, and tied to a fence near Laramie, WY where a cyclist riding by, at first, thought he was scarecrow. He wasn’t, and he was brought to a hospital where he lingered on life support for six days while the people of Laramie held candlelight vigils. His brain stem damage was too severe, and he died.
There are many people tortured, even killed, just because they are who they are, and while I don’t mean to lift up Shepard above all others who die at the hands of hatred, I am thinking of him today as someone who reminds us that those hands are human ones. When writing Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, I asked Lou, who survived six concentration camps and three death marches, where evil came from as I tried to make sense of the brutality he and millions of others faced. He pointed out to me how there was an article in Life magazine at one point that showed Nazi officers laughing and relaxing with their friends and family, just a bunch of normal guys. Lou has no illusions about the depth of evil we are capable of, but he also pointed out how much “the group” catalyzed acting on bad impulses or simply gave people new ideas about what they should do together. It’s so often us and them, both of these pronouns referring to the plural, and not you and I when we talk about the worst atrocities.
Matthew Shepard was murdered by two guys, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who actually lured him into trusting them by pretending to be gay. McKinney and Henderson had, according to their girlfriends, planned on robbing and abusing a gay man. Thing obviously took a turn for the worst. But when it comes to hate crimes, this wasn’t just the story of two men, but of a culture that vilifies the “them” that we see as divided from the “us.” It’s the same divide between Nazis and Jews as well as hundreds of other divided, and so skewed, ways of seeing who we are.
So I’m thinking of Matthew Shepard today, and how to see with more living and open eyes. I invite you to watch this moving video about Shepard.