I am thinking about two young men - similar in many ways, but whose lives have turned out very differently. The first is a young man, slight of frame, who studied abroad, a political science major who has studied German and Arabic, who is particularly interested in the Middle East and who wants to be a diplomat. He transferred to Penn from a small college in Central Pennsylvania which he, as someone who wished to be openly gay, found oppressive. Since coming here, he has found a circle of peers, as well as one special person, and supportive teachers and advisers, and he has joined the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Alliance. He seems very happy and says he feels safe here.
The other young man was also slight of frame, was educated abroad, studied German and Arabic, had a particular interest in the Middle East, was a political science major, and wanted to be a diplomat. He went to the University of Wyoming to further his studies. He, too, found friends and joined a gay organization, and, according to available information, was happy and, for the most part, felt safe.
One evening, this second young person -Matthew Shepard - met two men in a bar, and in his usual trusting manner, came out to them. In response, they beat him mercilessly and hung him - bloodied and shoeless - on a fence post, leaving him to die in near-freezing temperatures. Matthew died at the dawn of National Coming Out Day -a horrible reality and a cruel and painful irony.
Thankfully, the first student is fine. But, what has happened should wake all of us from a false sense of security. While many of us feel safe and supported as out gay and lesbian people on the Penn campus, we must be aware that hatred such as that which happened at the University of Wyoming can - and does - strike anywhere and at any time.
Hatred is all around us. It takes many forms - physical violence, yes, but also verbal assaults of all kinds.
Wyoming has no hate crimes bill; Pennsylvania has a hate crimes bill, but it does not extend to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. And hate crimes bills only take effect after a crime has occurred. We need to work to identify and counteract the root causes of homophobia. The father of one of the killers has been quoted as saying that the media have blown the crime out of proportion. Would it be any wonder that a father's ignorance and insensitivity might encourage a son's homophobia?
Schools - like families - have a major socializing influence. Yet school boards in Philadelphia and elsewhere in Pennsylvania refuse to include curricula which adequately expose and discourage homophobia. Religious institutions also serve as major socializing agents. While some churches and synagogues are enlightened and supportive of gay people, many still are not. As one example, note the recent widespread and expensive campaign aimed at "converting" homosexuals. As another, listen to the hate spewed by Brother Stephen almost any afternoon on College Green.
The loss of Matthew Shepard is devastating, but will not be forgotten and hopefully will not have been in vain. May it serve to strengthen our resolve to combat homophobia in all its forms by all means available to us.
At a university, we naturally think first and foremost - as we should - of education as the best strategy to counteract ignorance. Let us strive in that way to illuminate the vast darkness. And, in the process, we must cling very close, take care of ourselves, and watch out for and take care of each other.
This column is based on remarks made at the Oct. 13 vigil on campus for Matthew Shepard by Robert Schoenberg, D.S.W., director of Penn's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Center and a faculty member at the School of Social Work.
Originally published on October 29, 1998