|A button worn at the 2000 General Convention of The Episcopal Church|
News Report, Washington, D.C., October 12, 2018: Matthew Shephard to be interred at the National Cathedral 20 years after his brutal murder
“God hates fags! God hates fags! Matthew is in Hell!”
It was a cold October morning in Wyoming with flakes of snow in the air when I heard these words. It was the day of Matthew Shepard’s funeral, and I was there representing Integrity, the LGBT caucus in The Episcopal Church. As newly elected president of the organization, it was my first official act.
The chants came from members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. They were notorious for showing up all over the country with dreadful signs and loud voices declaring that “God hates fags!” More than that, they were clear that the United States was headed for a day of reckoning for the presence of homosexuals in the land. They protested at the funerals of people who died of AIDS, they protested at gatherings of churches or even individual churches they felt supported gay folk, they even protested at military funerals, proclaiming that God hated America. It was my first direct encounter with them, however.
Shivering in a line waiting for admittance into the church for the funeral, listening to the screams, I wondered how this world would end. Yes, the moment felt apocalyptic. We were on the verge of something, and it was either going to be led by what was about to happen in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church or by what was happening in the park across the street.
Twenty years later those thoughts seem almost silly. Of course, the proclamation of hate was not going to win out. It couldn’t have, and it didn’t.
Yet when I saw that Matthew was to have a resting place in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the “great church for national purposes” which is also the Cathedral of St. Peter & St. Paul of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, I was filled with relief and joy, and then those haunting screams overtook my memories, and I have felt a deep pit of fear ever since. It is still not safe to be lgbtq in America. Perhaps I should not globalize. Perhaps it is just I who do not feel safe in America.
But I know that’s wrong. The National Coalition of Anti-violence programs reported 52 lgbtq deaths in 2017, and a general rise in anti-lgbtq violence. A man in our own city was beaten nearly to death while anti-gay slurs were hurled at him. It got little to no attention.
When I wrote about Matthew’s funeral a year or so ago, there was a hopeful ending.
I recalled how, while standing in that line outside the church across from the park, I saw in the distance, walking down the street, a line of people all dressed in white. At first, I assumed they were more protestors, but as they came closer I realized they were something quite different. A couple dozen people, dressed in white, wearing enormous angel wings, formed themselves in a line between the protestors and the church, their wings blocking the sight of the haters and somewhat muffling their ugly shouting.
But that never happened. There were no angels that day, I have since discovered. They were protecting nothing but my faulty memory. I found this truth when I researched them, trying to learn of their origin. Their origin was in that day, but they were not there that day. Their first appearance was at the trial of the young men who killed Matthew, an event at which I was not present.
I needed those angels to protect me from those screams, to be a living wall of hope that could not be crossed, a symbol that indeed the sentiment inside the church that day would win out in the end.
Today, reading about Matthew’s final resting place, I should be joyful, but the rawness of that day twenty years ago is all I feel. The fact that my husband and I still get taunted walking down the street in our little city from time to time; the fact that we would never, ever, do so at night. The fact that I still flinch whenever he kisses me in public.
We’re married now. Twenty years ago, I certainly did not think that would be possible. But I am still not sure it cannot be taken away. We did, after all, just seat a man on the court who is by all signs opposed to our marriage rights, and that thought is now in the majority. “Settled law” is a meaningless term. The Supreme Court undoes “settled law” all the time.
Twenty years ago, Matthew’s death and his funeral seemed apocalyptic, and in sme sense they were. A vicious act of violence made people reconsider what they had always assumed was the way things were. And a bloodied young man tied to a barbed-wire fence, looking like Jesus hanging from his tree, was a challenge to the church, especially to Matthew’s church and mine, The Episcopal Church.
Twenty years later it looks for all the world like we won, even in our church. The rawness I feel today can be chalked up to a situational ptsd. But it feels bigger than that, deeper than that. Hate is making a resurgence; the president has crowds chanting “lock her up” about a woman (Senator Diane Feinstein) with whom they disagree and who made a decision they do not like, not someone who has committed any crime.
A friend says, “Don’t worry so much. Don’t spend any energy on it. They’re just blowing off steam. They’ll never be the majority.”
But I still remember Matthew. I still remember the vicious screams across the street. I still remember that feeling of apocalypse. I still remember being afraid.
I am grateful Matthew is finding his resting place and the peace I know that will bring to his family. But I have thrown of the memory-trick of the angels protecting me. Whether I should be or shouldn’t be, I am afraid. I still remember that day. I still remember Matthew.