Thirteen years ago tonight Matthew Shepard was lured to a rural road, tied up, pistol whipped then left for dead, simply because he was gay. He wasn’t found for nearly a day, still barely alive in the 30 degree weather, the only part of his face not covered by blood was where the tears had streamed down. The attack on Matthew, and his subsequent death a few days later, was a galvanizing moment for the gay community. It was one of only a handful of moments I can think of, in the twenty years that I’ve been out, that something changed in all of us, nationwide, at a much larger, meta level.
Within a day of hearing of the story I set up a Web site (now that I think about it, it was a blog, long before we called them that) to help coordinate news about his attack. It was called Matthew Shepard Online Resources. The site, and its accompanying bulletin board, quickly became the main organizing point for our community and our allies, and for a good year it advocated for amending the US’ already existing hate crimes law to include gender, disability and sexual orientation. The Republicans blocked legislation, and it wouldn’t become law for another eleven years.
It is necessary to speak out – as Jews, as Americans, as human beings – against the ugliness that reared its head that October day 13 years ago. No person deserves to die the way Matthew Shepard did. No person should have to live in fear simply because of who they are. To speak out – to decry this violence, to oppose bigotry, to take a step closer to a better world – is not merely an option; it is a fundamental obligation. As it is written, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16).
It is not enough, then, to simply refrain from homophobia or refrain from violence. Rather, we must speak out, to stop the violence, to stanch the blood of our neighbors. Matthew Shepard was not simply a victim at the hands of his attackers; he was the victim at the hands a society that sent the message that who he was as a person was wrong. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” We are all responsible; every additional week that we do not work for justice, every day that passes in which we do not imbue in our children an ethic of acceptance and uprightness, every moment of our silence is an act of violence against our LGBT brothers and sisters.
As the Mishna tells us, “It is not our responsibility to finish the task, but we may not refrain from starting it.” It may be that we will never eradicate homophobia – or Islamophobia, or transphobia, or anti-Semitism – in our lifetimes; the task itself often feels overwhelming. But that is no excuse, for silence is not an option.