Monday, September 29, 2008

Full circle

Saturday was a very interesting day. The morning began with the dedication of a bench in Matt's name in front of Arts and Sciences. Dennis and Judy spoke, as did President Buchanan, and they all did quite well in my opinion. The mood was reserved and somber, though I suppose that's to be expected. The messages of the speeches were spot on, though that's not what struck me most about the morning: the crowd.

There were many familiar faces in the audience. Many were faces that I have been seeing for 10 years, and it felt so right that they were present. There were also many new faces, or at least folks who weren't here 10 years ago. That fact spoke volumes to me about whether or not "the discussion" was still going on, whether in Laramie or around the country.

Many of the folks in attendance were 8, 9, or 10 years old when Matt was killed in 1998. Yet there they were, working their way toward the front. It showed what I have known for the last 10 years. People who didn't even know Matt were (and still are!) affected by what happened to him, and conversations about hate and violence are still happening in our classrooms, living rooms, and places of worship. As well they should!

The day ended with my friend Julie's wedding. It was the shortest wedding I've ever attended; the happy couple stood under a flowered arch in the middle of the dance floor. They read the vows, exchanged rings, and kissed. Then on to dinner and the party! Not only was it blissfully short, it was perfect for Julie and Galyn.

Jesse and I sat with a table of strangers, but had a good time and even managed a little chit-chat. Everyone was simply happy for the couple, who both deserved to find a fabulous partner as they continue their walk along the road of life. The prime rib was decent, the music a lot of fun, and the floor show beyond compare. A boy and girl, probably around 3 years old, stole the stage.

They didn't know each other, though te bounced up and down while she ran in place or in circles. They were far too precious for anyone's own good, and reminded us all how fun life can be. To stay young at heart. To dance your own dance. To be nice to strangers, and that meeting new people is a good thing. All in all, a perfect way to end the night.

Today's lesson: Life and death are connected, sometimes even in the same day. We probably won't understand it all the time. We can't control it, but instead should focus on living it as best we can. You can dance a lot of dances in the meantime.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Angel Action

The President called me one day to tell me he'd gotten "the fax." The message from Phelps saying that he would be coming to Laramie for Henderson's trial, due to start Monday, April 5th. Romaine called me soon after. Like me, she was frustrated that the last thing people would see on the news would be his messages of hatred and intolerance. "Somebody should do something."

I mentioned an idea someone had sent me: great big angel wings, surrounding his group with symbols of love and peace. "Wow, that's awesome. Someone should really do that," she said. "Wouldn't it be great," I replied. She then told me that she had to go get ready for work at the coffee shop, where she used to see Matt on a regular basis. I went back to whatever pointless thing I had been doing. Two hours later, my phone rang again.

"How many angels can you get in Laramie, and who do we need to call about permits and shit? WE are gonna do this." I simply smiled and said "Yes, we are, aren't we?" She went on to tell me that she'd been talking with a friend at the coffee shop. When she'd mentioned the angels, he got chills. Being a handy sort of guy, he thought for a bit and started sketching. In a matter of minutes, he designed a simple framework for wings, and they already had 4 Denver angels lined up. Thus the angels were born.

We plotted and planned for a while. Romaine called Dave O'Malley, still a Commander with the Laramie Police Department. I called Tim Banks, Chief of the University Police Department. It turns out there were no permits required, and though they were a bit nervous about possible conflicts, we made arrangements for security and safety. We assured them that they would have no problems from anyone in wings and that we'd be going over plans with all angels in detail to ensure there wouldn't be any incidents.

There were 11 angels that first time. We gathered everyone together for a meeting beforehand, cramming people into the livingroom of my old apartment on Baker Street. We covered the basics, reviewing with everyone how Phelps operates. What they might expect to hear, and that everyone needed to fully understand this before they tried to wear a halo. We talked about how important it would be to remain silent, peaceful, and loving, and how difficult it might be. Everyone was given a pair of earplugs too, just in case the sounds of hate behind us became too much for anyone. And Romaine gave us perhaps the most important tip: "Pee before you put on your wings!" They weren't easy to get in or out of, so it was important to wring out the kidneys before gettin' our holy on.

We met downtown at her sister's shop, The Jaded Lair. Made from PVC pipe and bed sheets, the wings stretched out almost 8 feet. It was a true Wyoming morning, grey and overcast. Amazingly, there wasn't much wind, but it was still bitterly cold. We all wore coats and jackets as best we could while still strapping on wings. Hats and gloves were problematic, and few of us had them. After transforming someone into a "holy roller," they had to perform a strange form of limbo to climb out of the basement without catching a wing on the door.

We met in the alley briefly, and shared with one another our reasons for being there. "I want my daughter to grow up in a better world." "I don't want the last thing my nephew sees on TV to be Phelps." "I'm here for my brother." We were also supposed to come up with a happy thought to hold onto, so that we could have an angelic, peaceful smile on our faces no matter what horrific things we heard from Westboro. We then walked in a line down to the courthouse, dodging street signs and lamp posts. Crossing the street had to happen in 2 shifts, as we couldn't get all the angels across a light in a single group. Our stomachs were knotted, our palms sweaty, our bodies chilled to the core...and we pasted on our most peaceful smiles.

We could hear Phelps and his group shouting things like "Matthew Shepard is in hell" and "God hates fags." As we walked up to take our positions, the most incredible thing happened. Though it only happened for a moment, their group fell silent. They didn't quite know what to do about us; we had made Phelps silent. They quickly regrouped and redoubled their shouts and taunts, but we had love...and Matt...on our side. Our smiles beamed brightly. Our halos rustled in the breeze, and our wings created a white wall of love just as we'd hoped.

That's not to say it was easy. Seeing the young children holding up signs with messages like "AIDS Cures Fags" was tough, especially for the parents in the group. We hadn't quite seen that one coming. The cold was a big problem for us. We were standing in the shade of the courthouse addition, and started at 7am. We were concerned about frostbite, especially in the feet. None of us were dressed as warmly as we should be, and it's hard not to think about hate speech or hypothermia when trying to smile and be silent. As if all of this wasn't enough to keep us locked in the moment, we couldn't help but notice the snipers on the roof. Just in case something went wrong...

We had a few things to keep us going, though. We had amazing support from the onlookers, at least once they all figured out that we were not part of Phelps' group. My friend Steph ran home and returned with a thermos of hot coffee. We took turns passing it around - not to drink the coffee, but rather to warm our fingers and hands. Every now and then, one of the police officers walking the space in between Phelps and our group would whisper words of encouragement, "you're doing great, keep it up" and "thank you for being here."

After an hour we followed Uncle Freddy to campus for a second round, this time in front of the Union. As we walked, we sang an original song, "The Holy Pokey," where you put you halo in, then you put your halo out. This time we were in the sun, so it wasn't quite as cold. UMC, the Keepers of the Fire, and the Union's convenience store brought out a cart of food and hot beverages labeled "Angel Food." Sugar cookies and hot apple cider never tasted quite so good. Phelps and Company didn't quite make it through their second hour of protest; naturally we like to think it was because we successfully kept them from getting the attention, media coverage, and confrontation upon which they thrive.

As the Westboro clan drove off we let out a cheer, and those gathered around joined in with us. We all felt a huge sense of accomplishment as we paused for a group photo. It had been a tough morning, but we all knew it was worth it. We honestly didn't anticipate the amount of media coverage we'd get. We also didn't expect to be a key part of play, destined to become the most produced play in America and an HBO movie adaptation.

My sister was an angel. My boss was an angel. Classmates, friends, and strangers. We stood together, not representing any one group, faith, or sexual orientation. We simply wanted to take a stand against intolerance and hatred. I still carry the memories with me. I will never forget the sun shining on the tree overhead at the courthouse. I remember thinking of Matt's smile the whole morning, struggling to fight off tears and maintain my own smile. And I remember the feeling of making a difference. I had rainbow angel wings and a halo tattooed on my ankle to remind me that we all have wings, we just need to stretch them more often.

Some time after the fact, I talked with Rob and Dave. They were in the courthouse that morning preparing for the trial, and someone called them to the window. It gave them strength and hope to face their own obstacle that morning. Another friend, someone with whom I had worked at the junior high during my student teaching, was also in the courthouse. She told me that she and her coworkers cried as the angels walked up. And I remember so many faces smiling back at us in front of the Union.

Today's lesson: Doing the right thing isn't always easy. Standing up and speaking out for those who can't is no easier. But it MUST be done if we hope to create a better tomorrow. Do what you can in the face of intolerance or discrimination. Do what you can, even when you don't want to. It will change you life in ways you cannot begin to imagine today, and hopefully do the same for the world in which we live.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Armbands 101

I have decided to do a series of retrospective posts. I've been doing a few interviews and some planning for the 10 year anniversary of Matt's murder. I've also been talking with the American Heritage Center (love you, Keith!) about putting some of my archives/momentos/etc into a collection there. I am actually HONORED to be able to share these stories with you all. It means so much to know there’s “another generation” who care and are willing to learn. And I suspect some of the "old guard" will remember some of this, and hopefully smile, even if at times it's through tears. This first post is about the yellow armbands.

The armbands were first created by the United Multicultural Council, which was a fairly new student organization at the time. They wanted to do something that would allow students and staff to VISIBLY show their support for the GLBT community and to make a statement against violence. The yellow was inspired by the yellow ribbons used after the Oklahoma City bombing. The green circle is the international symbol of peace.

In order to create the armbands, we simply took yellow fabric and cut it into uniform strips. We then used green craft paint from the Campus Activities Cenver, also available in the craft aisle of any department store. We unscrewed the lid to the paint and poured it into disposable plates, then used the bottom of the paint lids as a “stamp.” It kept things uniform, was easy to clean, and meant we didn’t have to be artists. They were then hung on makeshift clotheslines strung throughout the old CAC. Back then there were pillars and desks and things, and we used string to create mass drying areas. We used the clothesline, couches, chairs…any surface where they could dry. They made over 1000 armbands the first day, and bought the fabric at Wal-Mart.

As it was just before Homecoming and EVERYONE on campus was feeling what happened to Matt, the armbands flew out the door. They passed them out in the Breezeway, and they were all gone in a matter of hours. Students from many groups (and even random individuals) volunteered to make more, and they stayed until the early morning. They went back to Wal-Mart to get more fabric and paint. When they found out what it was for, Wal-Mart refused to accept payment for the fabric. Instead, they simply asked “How do you want this cut?” and then the craft department spent their time cutting the armbands so the students only had to paint and dry them.
Production continued for days, and eventually there was no more yellow fabric available in Laramie. Someone must have called a friend, because at one point we got a phone call that some students from CSU were driving up from Fort Collins. They’d passed a hat around and bought as much yellow fabric as they could afford, and they intended to hand deliver it so nobody had to drive to get it.

The Casper Star Tribune printed the symbol full page in color so people throughout the state could display them. They created a banner with the symbol to march behind in the Homecoming parade. It was behind this symbol that a group of 100 turned into over 1000. It was behind this symbol that we spoke in front of the Newman Center at a candlelight vigil…with a crowd nearing 1500. The volleyball team used them to tie back their hair during games for the rest of the season. The football team had it turned into a sticker and wore them on their helmets for the rest of their season. I also saw the symbol in Washington DC when I spoke at the vigil held on the steps of the Capitol. Someone had found a copy of the Casper Star or scanned it from the internet, but there it was. In the window of an apartment just off Dupont Circle, and only 4 days after the Homecoming game. Love travels quickly.

We brought the armbands back for an anniversary. Phelps was going to be here for the Homecoming game, so we organized a Peaceful Positive Presence. Once again the Union was littered with yellow scraps and string…and hope and love. Most of the marching band wore the armband during that game, and we didn’t take any home. I eventually got the yellow threads off my living room carpet. In an odd way, I was sad to see them go.

My heart still swells when I see a dirty, dingy, faded, or tattered armband. On a backpack. On a car’s rear-view mirror. In an office. How powerful and amazing, that a few scraps of cloth and craft paint could unite thousands of strangers and neighbors with a simple message of peace and non-violence. And how universal the message. Couldn’t we all use more peace and non-violence in 2008?
Next time: Angel Action

Three words

They are usually hard to say, at least out loud. It's scary to be the first to say them. But it's worth it when you hear them back. And you both mean it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

10 years...

For those who've been waiting, here's a post about something OTHER than the boyfriend...

I cannot believe that it has been almost 10 years since my life changed. Since my town changed. And since I lost a friend. The 10 year anniversary of Matt's murder is coming up in under a month. The press have already started lining up. So far I've done interviews with the Advocate, the Boomerang, and NBC Nightly News (story to run online). I've had calls from NPR, Channel 13, and a radio documentarian from Iowa. I'm speaking at the University of Denver on the 9th, and Spectrum is shoring up their plans for events throughout the month.

I'm not sure I'm ready for another round of interviews, but I refuse to be silent. I will continue to speak up and speak out in place of a voice silenced too soon. I will continue to tell his story. I will continue to speak out against hate and violence. I will continue to make the world better. But I admit it, I'm tired. With a new relationship, a new job, and the start of semester, I'm already run pretty ragged. It's more the scheduling than anything else, I think. Trying to fit in interviews and phone calls, respond to emails, coordinate with those making's keeping me hopping, to be sure.

Today I'm reflecting on how funny time is. It speeds up and slows down at will, it seems. Scotty and Craig are moving to St. Louis by October 1st, and time is slipping away before they leave. 10 years has passed in the blink of an eye, and yet it also seems like a lifetime ago. The morning was done before I knew it, but the afternoon is creeping along in the most painful fashion. It's such a fickle thing, that time is.

I know that things will work out. The Universe will provide, and I'll make it through to the other side. It's just...pensive. Weighty. And definitely emotional. Thank goodness for the weekend, and a trip to see Avenue Q in Denver!

Monday, September 08, 2008

A four letter word

Yes, dear readers, I do believe it's happening. I've fallen in deep smit, and the dreaded L word hovers on my mind. And my lips. And I'm not the only one. It's been just over a month now, so let's review:

I've been pampered and doted on. Not only have there been "formal" flowers (rose petals and candles on the bed with a dozen roses on the nightstand), on several occasions I've been given random flowers, picked from a tree or nearby bush. I've been taken to lunch, dinner, cocktails, and everything in between.

Most of my close friends have met Jesse, and I have yet to receive a negative review. Scotty and Craig were up this weekend, and we all went to the game. Brittany has known him for a while. Jess and Andrew, Bobbers, Nell, Ryan and Kass, Jerry, Tracey and Rob...they're all on board. And giving me copious amounts of shit, needless to say. I've met his friends too, including many of his fraternity brothers. They're giving him some shit too, but we all seem to get along quite well.

We've had trips out of town, quiet evenings at home, nights apart, nights together, nights on the town, and a fantastic month overall. We're communicating well too, and this weekend checked in with each other. "How are things going for you? Have I been a good boyfriend so far? Is there anything annoying you or that you want to change?" The answers were all very good on both sides.

We want similar things out of life, and have encouraged each other to do what needs to be done. Again, it's nice to date an adult in that regard. I've met a lot of his family, and the other day his mom asked him how I was doing. Apparently, she approves so far. In other words, things are going very well!

I've been walking on Cloud 9 for some time now, though another part of me is terrified. I feel like the other shoe should have fallen by now, like I should have discovered some fault or flaw that could be a deal breaker. My own self-doubt nags me about what he'll find that HE doesn't like, and run screaming. But it hasn't happened, and I'm not going to spend my time focusing on that. Instead, I'm focusing on what's going right. On how I feel. On my overflowing heart, and hopes for the future. On my thoughts that he could be the one.

Today's Lesson: Sometimes things are scary. Don't let that keep you from something that could turn out to be amazing. Fear is powerful, but hope and love are stronger. Take a chance.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

It's definitely Fall semester

There's no mistaking it anymore. There are hoards of students roaming the streets on weekends and running across campus streets and walkways. I've been buzzed by bike riders many days in a row. Friends who teach have been stressing over their syllabi, friends who learn have been prepping homework lists, and friends who do neither shake their heads at all the activity. Stress is already growing for most of the folks connected to the Rainbow Kingdom.

Work is no different. Meetings are picking up and we've already had new complaints in the office. We're starting new projects and initiatives, so there's more than enough work to go around. Invitations, meeting rooms, search files, thank you's, brochures,'s jumping around here, I tell ya. And it's only likely to get busier.

And then there's this dating thing. It's still going well. We're exploring our relationship. Figuring out the logistics necessary for dating someone. How do we juggle busy schedules, social engagements, and still make sure we have time together...just the two of us? What's the next step? We've talked a bit about holidays, vacations, etc. Nothing permanent or serious, mind you, but the first steps. After all, I've already met the bulk of the family.

I told him the other night that it's so refreshing dating an adult. We haven't had petty squabbles about "why are you going to go do that instead of spending time with me?" or similar junior high school problems. We both understand that we have jobs, class, committees, friends, family, and other obligations that we have to make time for. We understand that we're on call, and sometimes we have to put a friend first due to crisis, dilemma, or timing.

Today's lesson: Take a breath. Yes, this is a previous lesson revisited. It's started up again, so deal with it. It's time to go back to scheduling things carefully. Planning time for readings, laundry, cooking, and showering. Figuring out how to cram it all into 24 short hours a day. It's not easy, and usually comes with a fair amount of stress. But it's also usually worth it in the end. Hang in there. You've likely done this before, and will do it again. You really CAN handle it.