Matthew Shepard

matthew_shepardI hope that almost anyone reading this site knows at least something about Matthew Shepard — whose face became a figurehead in the gay rights movement after his grisly murder in 1998.

Matthew was born on December 1, 1976 in Casper, Wyoming to parents Judy and Dennis Shepard. He was their eldest son — their other son Logan was born in 1981. He had a close relationship with his brother. He attended local schools through his junior year of high school, developing an interest in politics, and was generally friendly to his classmates even though he was frequently teased for being thin and not athletic.

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In 1994, Dennis Shepard was hired by Saudi Aramco to be an oil rig inspector, and Shepard’s parents moved to Dahran, Saudi Arabia for the job. Matthew attended his senior year of high school at The American School in Switzerland (TASIS). While there, he started studying German and Italian and became interested in music, fashion, and theater. During February of his year there, he and three classmates took a vacation to Morocco — where Matthew was beaten, robbed, and raped by a group of locals who were never caught. The attack was traumatic for Matthew — afterwards he had bouts of depression, anxiety and paranoia and experienced flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts which lasted through the remainder of his life, despite his best efforts in therapy. When therapy seemed to fail him, he turned to drug use. He also began routinely being tested for HIV after this.

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Matthew graduated from TASIS in 1995. Shortly after his graduation, Matthew came out to his mother. She was very accepting of him and apparently coming out was entirely without drama, so we’re just going to breeze by it now. After high school, Matthew began to study theater at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina until he briefly moved to Raleigh. He enrolled at Casper College in his hometown. At Casper College, he met Romaine Patterson, who became his close friend. Together, they moved to Denver where Matthew took on a series of short-lived part time jobs.

At 21 years old, Matthew enrolled at his parents’ alma mater, Wyoming University in Laramie. He felt that a small town environment would make him feel safer than he had in Denver. He began studying political science, international relations, and foreign languages. He quickly became an active member of the campus’ LGBTQ+ student organization and earned a reputation for passionately pursuing equality. Some time after beginning school at Wyoming University, Matthew tested positive for HIV — a fact he confided in a handful of friends, but kept from his parents.

And that brings us to October 6, 1998. Matthew was at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. According to later testimonies, Matthew encountered two men — Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson — in the bar that night. They pretended to be gay to lure him out to McKinney’s truck. Matthew was expecting a ride home, but put his hand on McKinney’s knee, which set off a deep rage in McKinney. The two men robbed Matthew, hit him with a gun, beat him and tortured him until he was covered in his own blood and was virtually unrecognizable. They tied him to a fence in the middle of nowhere and left him there in temperatures that were close to freezing. According to later testimonies, both men were completely sober and, after finding out his address, planned on robbing Matthew’s home as well. First, however, they returned to the town and subsequently got into a fight with two other men. When police broke up the fight, McKinney was arrested and his truck was searched. They found shoes, a bloody gun, and a credit card also smeared with blood. The shoes and credit card belonged to Matthew.

Eighteen hours later, a man named Aaron Kreifels went past the fence on his bicycle. He initially mistook Matthew for a scarecrow, but upon realizing that it was a badly beaten, comatose person he immediately called the police. It’s reported that there was so much on Matthew’s face that the only places you could see his skin were tracks from his tears running down his face. The first officer to respond was Reggie Fluty. She arrived with a supply of faulty medical gloves, which she eventually ran out of while trying to clear blood out of Matthew’s mouth so he could breathe. When Matthew’s HIV status became clear to authorities, Fluty was put on a regiment of AZT for a month but she did not contract the virus.

Matthew was brought to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, and then moved to a more advanced facility at Pudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. Even there, the doctors decided his injuries were too severe for operations. Matthew remained in a coma until October 12, when he was taken off of life support and pronounced dead.

During the six days, news of the attack had gained international attention. Candlelight vigils were held around the world — as well as anti-gay demonstrations. When Matthew’s funeral was held, the Westboro Baptist Church protested — gaining themselves national attention. (Which, of course, is all those parasites want or care about so I’m saying the bare minimum about them.) In response, Romaine Patterson organized a counter-protest where a group of people dressed as angels to block out the protest — this would be the foundation of the organization Angel Action.

Meanwhile, authorities arrested McKinney and Henderson. They were charged with attempted murder (later upgraded to first degree murder), kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. Their girlfriends, who had provided alibis and tried to help dispose of evidence, were charged with being accessories after the fact. McKinney’s girlfriend Kristen Price told detectives that the violence had been set off by how McKinney “[felt] about the gays” (a testimony she recanted in 2004) and the defense team attempted to argue that McKinney had gone temporarily insane when Matthew had come onto him. This is one of the most famous examples of the “gay panic” defense, but the judge rejected that argument.

Henderson took a plea deal, pleading guilty and agreeing to two consecutive lifetime sentences instead of the death penalty. In exchange, he testified against McKinney. McKinney was found guilty by a jury of felony murder, but not of premeditated murder. While they deliberating on whether or not he should receive the death penalty, Shepard’s parents arranged a deal — McKinney would serve two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole.

In the years that followed, this attack would remain in the minds of the American population. The events inspired a number of television, film, and theatrical works — the most notable (in my opinion) being The Laramie Project and Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine (go watch those if you haven’t seen them yet!) More importantly, Matthew’s death was a major part of the impetus for passing more comprehensive anti-hate crime legislation in the United States. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act (sometimes called the Matthew Shepard Act) became law on October 28, 2009.

Dennis and Judy Shepard have been staunch advocates for LGBTQ+ rights since the attack, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which they founded, has become a massive force for education and advocacy regarding LGBTQ+ issues. This year — on the 20th anniversary of the attack — it was announced that Matthew’s remains will be interred in the Washington National Cathedral on October 26, 2018.

Upstairs Lounge Fire

June 24 marks a very somber day in the history of LGBTQ+ Americans — it is the anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge fire, an arson attack that occurred in 1973 and which was the deadliest attack on a U.S. gay bar until 2016.

The Upstairs Lounge was on the second floor of the three story building at 141 Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was the final night of Pride weekend and, at the time of the attack, some 60 people were still inside the Upstairs Lounge listening to the piano music of David Gary at an event hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church.

At 7:56 pm, the buzzer on the front door went off. Luther Boggs went to answer the door, only to find the front stairwell completely aflame. Buddy Ramussen, an Air Force veteran and the bartender there that night, led twenty people out the back exit to the roof of a neighboring building where they could escape. However, somehow, their escape route locked behind them trapping everyone else inside. A handful tried to escape by squeezing out of the barred windows. MCC Reverend Bill Larson died clinging to those bars, and his body was visible from the street below for hours afterwards. The MCC’s assistant pastor Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell had escaped, but returned to try to rescue his boyfriend Louis Horace Broussard — they died holding onto each other.

Firefighters had difficulty reaching the scene because of pedestrians and car traffic. One fire truck crashed into a taxi. Once they arrived, they quickly brought the fire under control quickly. 28 people died in the fire, one died enroute to the hospital, and three more died later due to injuries sustained in the blaze. Fifteen were injured but survived.

The only suspect in the arson attack was a man named Rodger Dale Nunez, who had been kicked out of the bar earlier in the night for fighting with a customer. A witness claimed to have seen him in the area of the bar twenty minutes before the fire, but police determined that the witness was unreliable. Nunez also suffered from mental illness, and was placed in psychiatric custody after his arrest. He escaped, however, and was never picked up by police again despite being quite visible in the French Quarter. A friend later told investigators that Nunez confessed to the arson at least four times, before taking his own life in November of 1974.

Despite the magnitude of the attack, it was all but ignored. The media made no mention of the LGBT status of the victims, and neither the city nor state government ever made a statement on the attack — despite having declared days of mourning for smaller tragedies. Worse still, the victims — and many of the survivors — had been outed. Churches refused to have funerals, some of the survivors lost their jobs. Some of the victims’ families refused to claim the bodies. On June 25, Father Bill Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church held a small, private prayer service for the victims — he was the only member of the city’s clergy who was willing to do so.  80 people attended the service, and he received over 100 complaints about it from parishioners and was officially rebuked by his superior in the church.

On July 1, MCC founder Troy Perry — who flew from L.A. — held a memorial service for the victims. Reporters waited outside, eager to expose the grieving and mostly closeted members LGBTQ+ community of New Orleans to the public. Although a side exit was offered, none took that option. Every person who attended the service exited together in a show of solidarity. In 2003, the city of New Orleans installed a (small) plaque in the sidewalk at the location of the fire to memorialize the victims.

Three of those victims — white males — were never identified. The burial costs of these three were paid for anonymously, and they were buried along with Ferris LeBlanc in a mass grave in a cemetery reserved for the poor. LeBlanc’s immediate family only learned of his death in 2015. The cemetery he is buried in is massive and unkept and there is not a map, so his family has yet to see his grave.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

Pulse Shooting

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Pulse with a memorial wall. (Photo credit: Michael Rivera by way of Wikipedia)

I know we all remember it, it’s only been a year, but we have to talk about it. It’s part of our history as much as any of the other tragedies that came before it.  We have to talk about the Pulse shooting in Orlando.

I’m not going to talk about the man who did this — this isn’t about him, this isn’t about giving him attention. While this tragedy needs to live on in our hearts and our minds and has to inform our work as we move our community forward — that monster does not.

It was June 12, 2016 and it was Latin night at Pulse, a weekly event there. And that’s pretty integral to this event. This wasn’t an attack on the entire LGBT+ community. That was an attack on the Latinx members of our community. That intersectionality between two marginalized groups cannot be stressed enough. We’ve all said, since this happened, “It could have been any of us. It could have been me.” I’ve said it, but truthfully, I probably would not have been there even if I was in Orlando at the time. This was an attack on my brothers and my sisters in this wonderful LGBT+ family, and it was a violation of a place I consider sacred and safe, but it was not really an attack on me. That doesn’t make me hurt less, it doesn’t invalidate the fifteen or so times I cried that day or the countless times I cried through the following week, or the tears I cried while I wrote this. It doesn’t take away my grief or my anger or the fear that I felt following the attack — and still feel now.

Last call was at 2 am. It’s estimated 320 people were still inside, music still played. At 2:02 am, Adam Gruler — an off-duty police officer working security at Pulse for extra money — engaged the perpetrator of this attack, but was unable to stop him from entering the club. The perpetrator opened fire inside the club, firing into the unsuspecting crowd. People inside tried to flee the club, or hide in bathrooms or behind bars. A Marine veteran named Imran Yousuf, who was working at Pulse as a bouncer, managed to open a latched door — an act which is credited with saving as many as 70 lives.

The authorities that initially arrived exchanged gunfire with the perpetrator, until they realized he had hostages — roughly 30 people. At that point, SWAT took over and began to negotiate. The negotiations lasted until about 5:02 am, when the perpetrator announced he was affixing explosives to his hostages and intended to detonate them in different corners of the building in fifteen minutes. Authorities breached the building and shot and killed the perpetrator. He was reported dead at 5:17 am.

58 people were wounded. 38 victims were declared dead on the scene, another 11 were declared dead at hospitals in the aftermath. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in U.S. history — although it has since been surpassed.orlando+victims1

I will be writing a little bit about each of the 49 victims — each one of them should be remembered and each of them has a place on this site. Until I’ve done that, here is a really nice memorial to each of the victims from the Orlando Sentinel. I’d also like to leave you with the song “Pulse” by Eli Lieb and Brandon Skeie that is dedicated to the victims and their families:

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)