Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What if we held marriage hostage?

Last night Maximus was telling me about a catty, witty gay commentator who had a great idea. He pointed out that should Prop 8 pass in California, there are enough queer Californians to get an initiative on the ballot for next year. Prohibiting marriage between a man and a woman. Of course it would never pass, but it would point out the absolute lunacy of the current measure. But it got me to thinking...we could go even further. We could go on strike.

If voters in California want to lock us out of the Chapel of Love, let's do the same in return. What would happen if the GLBTQ folks went on strike? It's hard for straight people to get married without florists, cake decorators, and church organists. Half the choir might not show up. Don't even think about hiring a wedding planner. Designers would refuse to create or alter bridal gowns and bridesmaid dresses. Booking a stylist to get your up-do would be pretty tough too.

We make great photographers, so you better buy a bunch of disposable cameras and pray for the best. Without chefs, caterers, or waiters, you'll be dining on cocktail weenies and Oreos...buffet style. I hope that when you go to get your license, the clerk didn't have to settle for a separate-and-inequal "civil union." You'll probably going to need blood tests too, but good luck finding a male nurse or HIV clinic worker to draw samples. And just think...we have a lot of straight allies who might also go on strike with us!

I realize this buys into a host of stereotypes and is a little silly sounding, but I think you get my point. This isn't something that affects nameless, faceless statistics on a sheet of paper. It affects your neighbors, your cousins, your children, your bankers, your landlords, and your coworkers. This is about human beings and their right to love and be free in America today.

To love, comfort, honor, and cherish. For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer. In sickness and in health. In good times and in sorrow. For as long as we both shall live. Those are the words, after all. It's such a simple little vow. And we're not entering into it unadvisedly or lightly. How does anyone have the right to prevent me from making that promise to my partner? To say that my partner and I are somehow less capable or deserving of these things, or that our relationship is different and "less" in some fundamental way?

It's not about forcing any religion or church to honor or perform weddings for same-sex couples. It's not about mocking the institution of marriage or destroying the fabric of American families. It's not getting something extra, different, or "special." It's about dignity and respect, and whether or not the government has the right to tell me who I can love. Who I chose as my partner. Who I want to come home to after a long day. To hug, cook dinner, do laundry, take care of the puppies, and clean the kitchen. It's about spending our lives together in boring, codependent, quiet normalcy.

It's about having the same rights as those around us, and wanting the same thing as everyone else: simply to love and be loved. Vote no on Prop 8, and if you don't live in California, ask your friends and family who live and vote there to do so.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Time travel

Last weekend the boyfriend (Jesse, for those who didn't already know) and I went "back home" to Kaycee, WY for his dad's 50th (and cousin's 16th) birthday party. What's that? You don't know anything about Kaycee? Well, the population is around 250 people. There are 2 main streets through town, both of which are also highways. It's about 50 miles or so from my hometown (Wright) and is about an hour north of Casper. Ranching and agriculture are a large part of the community, as is mining/oil/natural gas/minerals. There's a general store, but no supermarket. There are two bars, a couple of mom-and-pop restaurants, a motel, etc. It's very small town America, and sits right on the interstate. It's also in a different time zone...around 25 years in the past.

Where else can you reserve a public hall for an event that has "No smoking" signs posted on the walls and cabinets in the kitchen labeled "Ashtrays?" Where else can you hear the Eagles followed by old school country, mixed in with "Happy Birthday Sweet 16?" Where the whole town is working together to fundraise for a statue in the new park...dedicated to the memory of the hometown local boy made good (Chris Ledoux)? Where the party included keg stands, and even some of the grey-haired party-goers were upside down?

To say that I had flashbacks to my own life growing up would be an understatement. We went out to one of the family's ranches outside town to see the buffalo and so I could see the ranch. Even stepping into the restroom reminded me of all the ranch houses I grew up visiting. There had been a late night fight resulting in an ambulance call while we were there. By early the next morning, the grapevine had the information spread across town. Over the course of the weekend I overheard several different versions, and the story grew with each re-telling.

The party was open invitation, and we had seating for around 100 people (yes, that's almost half the town). Just about everyone showed up, I think, and it reminded me of the family/town functions that I used to attend as a kid. A fish fry out at the Marquiss ranch when the hunters from Florida flew in. The annual Reynolds dance in Gillette at the K of C Hall. Brandings. Town festivals. Family reunions. Folks gettin' together who've known each other forever and probably know more about you than you'd like.

It was interesting watching faces as Jesse introduced me to people. Sometimes it was "I'd like you to meet Jim Osborn." Sometimes it was "this is my partner, Jim Osborn." Naturally I took my cues from him, but the reactions were, at times, priceless. Seeing someone process the term partner, then their eyes opening slightly as they found it in their mental rolodex. Watching someone's eyes narrow or their lips purse as they shook my hand. Seeing a devilish little twinkle and broad smile as they realized Jesse's "gay lover" had come to a public family/town function in the middle of nowehere, and that they were so happy he's seeing someone willing to do it.

Sure, Grandpa made a comment or two that might appear a bit backward. But he didn't bat an eyelash when telling Jesse and I we would be in bedroom with the double bed so we MIGHT have enough room. Jokes or slurs like "cocksucker" were overheard, but they weren't directed AT us. The only comments I heard about ME came from a couple of high school or college-age guys who were administering the often-mandatory keg stands. "He sure is a BIG guy, iddn't he?" I simply smiled, as I knew this meant I wouldn't be required to invert myself while sucking cheap beer through a communal hose.

In other words, things really are changing out there, even in the smallest towns in the most rural places left in America. Even the good ol' boys are adjusting to someone showing up to the party with his boyfriend. Sure, we didn't kiss or dance or grope each other in front of the crowd, but nobody else was doing it either. And isn't that what equality is all about? The right to be boring and normal with everyone else?

Friday, October 10, 2008


My life has changed in countless ways since Matt died, and I know it will never be the same. And though it might sound strange, I owe him so much for those changes. I’ve spent the last 10 years doing what I can to make the world around me a safer and more welcoming place for everyone. I volunteer more in my community and have done some traveling, talking to people about hate and violence. I recently changed jobs…and careers, now working in the Office of Diversity and Employment Practices. I’m working to make my passion my profession. But the impact on me and my life goes much deeper than how I earn a paycheck.

It hasn’t been easy, by any means. Many people hear the words “Matthew Shepard” and think of him as an event; I think of my friend who’s no longer here, and how much it hurts that he’s gone. I miss seeing his incredible beaming smile, the one that came not just from his mouth, but from the sparkle in his eyes and from deep within his heart. I can’t find words to describe the pain of losing someone to such violence. Working through the loss and grief in the public eye has also been a struggle at times, though I think it has made me live more honestly and openly. I speak more from my heart, and those around me probably know me better.

I value those around me more, and try to be more deliberate in letting them know it. I only had the honor of knowing Matt for a few short months before he was killed. I was planning Gay Awareness Week during that time, and kept telling myself that I would make a point of getting to know him more in depth afterwards. One of my greatest regrets is not taking that time from the start. He was worth that, and so much more. I view everyone as worth it these days, or at least try to. When I think of Matt, I call or email someone I haven’t spoken with in a while, and know my life is all the richer for it.

I try to view others as people first. I learned that from Matt, I think. He didn’t look at someone and see them as black, or Jewish, or disabled. He saw them as a person first and foremost; the rest was just insignificant differences, since we have much more in common than anything that separates or divides us. He used to strike up conversations with strangers, homeless folks, or anyone he found interesting or compelling. I think he liked learning about people, and valued their experiences in a way most of us don’t. He taught me something about the value of humanity and how we’re all connected. I suppose he taught me to give everyone the dignity and respect they deserve as a human being.

I’ve also seen the power we as individuals have to change the world around us. Romaine and I created and organized Angel Action in response to Fred Phelps’ presence in Laramie. We didn’t want his messages of hate and intolerance to go unanswered or to be what our friends and family saw on the news before they went to bed. The people of Wyoming and America deserved better than that, and Matt would have been the first to say so. We didn’t plan to become part of a play, an HBO movie, or a media storm. We just wanted to do something to combat hate, but in a peaceful and loving way. We didn’t want to sink to the level of Phelps and his group.

Perhaps most importantly, Matt’s murder taught me how important it is to stand up for those who can’t. To speak out for those who have been silenced through fear or through violence. Matt wanted to spend his life doing something to make the world a better place. He wanted to help others and make a difference in someone’s life. He can’t do that now, and so I and many others have to do it for him. I feel an obligation to carry on his dreams and work toward his goals. Someone has to be his voice, and to share his light and love with the world he’s left far too soon.

Yes, I owe Matt so much for the lessons he taught me, both in life and in his death. For the changes he’s brought about in my life, in Wyoming, and in the hearts and minds of people across the country and around the globe. Perhaps I’ve repaid that debt to him in some fashion. But I still keep telling people about him. About his murder. About hate and violence. I keep “fighting the good fight.” I do it because Matt also taught me I’m responsible for those around me, that if I stay silent or inactive I’m no better than those who killed him. I don’t want another parent to know the pain Dennis and Judy feel. I don’t want another community to be scarred by the manifestation of ignorance and fear. I do it for Matt. For his smile. For his heart. I do it to change the world the way he changed me. Hopefully that change won’t require more loss and sacrifice. Please think of Matt today, and help me build a world he’d be proud of.

Monday, October 06, 2008

I remember...

...being at the meeting, and going over the list of activites and events for Gay Awareness Week. Everyone was excited and looking forward to a great week. A poetry reading and art exhibit. Our keynote for the week was Leslea Newman, author of "Heather Has Two Mommies." She was a big name, and we couldn't wait to have her speak in Wyoming.

We went to the Village Inn after meeting, as we always did. We pushed several tables together, much to the chagrin of the staff, and were too noisy. We were celebrating our upcoming big week with pie, caffeine, and maybe even some food if you could afford it. It was a night like any other. We told stories and laughed. But like every other good thing, it had to come to an end. People started to split off, leaving to do some homework or heading out to meet friends.

Tommi gave him a ride that night. Both to and from The Village Inn. I don't know what time he left, as I wasn't paying attention. Why would I? I don't know what time he got to the Fireside. I don't know how long he was there before they approached him. I don't know what they said to him, or how they convinced him to go. I don't know why he got in the car, or what happened after they left the bar. And I never will. But he did. And 10 years ago tonight he was attacked. It was some time after midnight, but I don't know how much after.

I do know it still hurts. I do know I still have questions. I do know there are amazing people here in Laramie and abroad doing incredible work. They have opened their hearts and minds. They have looked around them, rolled up their sleeves, and jumped in...working to make their corner of the world a safer, more welcoming place for EVERYone. It might be one person at a time, or in a way that reaches thousands, but they do whatever they can.

Tonight I think of Matt, alone on the prairie on a cold and windy October night...just like tonight.

Today's lesson: Do whatever you can, whenever you can. Never underestimate your power to affect the world around you.