“Life was so much easier twenty years ago.” – Kenny Rogers lyric from the song “Twenty Years Ago” in 1986.
“But Palin’s embrace of small-town values is where her hold on the national imagination begins. She embodies the most basic American myth — Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, the fantasia of rural righteousness — updated in a crucial way: now Mom works too. Palin’s story stands with one foot squarely in the nostalgia for small-town America and the other in the new middle-class reality.”
– Joe Klein, Sept. 10th,2008 Time Magazine
The two men who beat and tortured a gay University of Wyoming student ignored his pleas that they spare his life, leaving him tied to a ranch fence, unconscious and barely breathing, investigators said Friday. “During the incident the victim was begging for his life,” said Albany County Judge Robert A. Castor, reading an arrest affadavit.
– Associated Press, Oct. 10th, 1998
The Denver Post reports that one local resident “wasn’t shocked to hear a gay man had been beaten so severely.” She said: “Here in the rural West, such intolerance still is not that unusual.”
On October 12th, 1998, just less than hour after midnight, Matthew Shepard died. I had been preaching in Golden, Colorado, a couple of hours south of Laramie, Wyoming, when the story of Matthew’s attack broke and made national news.
Four days later, representing the UUA, I arrived back in Colorado and drove 2 hours north to Cheyenne, Wyoming. I arrived in Wyoming to participate in an interfaith service in Cheyenne, to speak to the UU congregation in Laramie, visit and listen to UUs and the bglt community of Casper, and attend a community gathering for the University of Wyoming students and faculty.
I said a few words, did a lot of listening, talked with various local religious leaders and community leaders, and was interviewed for local television (where the cameraman for the interview later would be seen as the weekend anchor).
But mostly I remember visiting the fencerow.
A group of us from the Laramie UU congregation went out to the fencerow where Matthew had been tied and left after the Sunday service. I was sure the car I was in was going to lose parts as we navigated the rocky terrain path to the fence. There wasn’t much close by, other than a house being built behind the fence a couple of football fields away. Remote. Remote and beautiful. The Rocky Mountains, the Big Sky of the West, the town of Laramie, all unfolded in front of the fence in spectacular fashion. I remember the view from the fence the most clearly.
It’s been ten years since Matthew was robbed, beaten, and killed. The world has changed a lot since then.
Our congregations held vigils in honor Matthew Shepard, needed less pushing to become Welcoming Congregations, and have worked for marriage equality. Will and Grace, Six Feet Under, Queer as Folk, and The L Word changed the television landscape. Barney Frank and Suze Orman are seen as experts in the current economic meltdown. Thirty-four states passed hate crime legislation where sexual orientation was included since Matthew’s death, though Wyoming never did. Massachusetts, California, and Connecticut have marriage for same sex couples; several other states have civil unions and domestic partnerships.
There is a hopeful line in the play The Laramie Project where a character remarks that “the world only spins forward.”
I think the Kenny Rogers song however speaks for many. When the song was release in 1986, twenty years ago would have been the mid-60s. If you’ve ever been to Alaska, once you get outside of Anchorage into smaller towns like Wasilla, Palmer, Seward, and Talkeetna, it feels like stepping back into smalltown USA in the 60s. There is a “neighborly-ness” to each place and a sense of order and manageability to life.
This is a big part of Sarah Palin’s appeal. Many in this country would like to return to a time when life seemed simpler, orderly, manageable. Most of these people are straight, white, and able-bodied.
Part of the allure of this nostalgic hope for a return to a simpler life is so that people don’t have to think about complexities of race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, ableism, and even to some extent sexism. In small town America these things had their place and you didn’t talk about them, and, for the most part, have to think about them. This is privilege, whether it be straight privilege, white privilege, or the privilege of any dominant group.
I think much of America would like to not have to think about the complexity of identity and oppression. The strongest way to keep oppression in place is through silence and pretending it’s not real.
Ten years after Matthew’s death, a gunman walked into a congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee. He didn’t like that the world had changed and that the congregation there had and was continuing to do community work on homophobia, racism, and other oppressions.
Being from East Tennessee myself, and remembering the 60s there in the small towns of Norris, Clinton, Andersonville, Lake City, and Harriman, there was an order to things. If you were white and male and able-bodied (and straight, though talking about that then was taboo), you had a certain revered place in society. You were going to get married, stay that way, and work in one job. This is the world that the gunman, Jim David Adkisson grew up in. Because he couldn’t have that and didn’t know how to deal with not having it, he decided to “make things right.” For Adkisson the world was only spinning and he had lost his balance.
Sarah Palin captured many people’s attention because she was from a small town, where the bigger problems were too many wild animals on the property, taking care of the kids, and making it to church on Sunday.
If you look at an electoral map by counties instead of by states, you see not red and blue states, but blue cities and red in most of the rest of the country. The red places where it was easier to imagine an easier life 20 years ago and the blue places where the world spun more quickly.
Matthew’s death happened in a very red place. Cheyenne is the largest city with 55,000 people. Laramie was a town divided.
If you don’t know Wyoming history, there were three major towns when Wyoming became a state—Cheyenne, Laramie, and Rawlins. The three cities got to draw straws. One city (Cheyenne) would get to be the capital. Another would be home to the state university (Laramie) . The third would have the state prison (Rawlins). Of note, Rawlins won the straw drawing contest and chose the prison. Cheyenne picked second, leaving Laramie with the university.
Laramie is divided between townies and those associated with the university. They depend on each other but tended, in 1998, not to interact much. University folks stayed in the university area. Town folks stayed out. People were generally polite but kept to themselves and didn’t intermingle a lot.
Matthew, a student, was attacked by two folks from the town. The University was the more progressive place. There was bglt student group at the time but no gay bars at all in the entire state of Wyoming. After Matthew was attacked and killed, people in Wyoming were outraged that this could happen and that the world would think of Wyoming as a backward place. They weren’t like that there.
Ten years later, we’re still struggling with divides. There are some who want to spin forward. Some who want the spinning to stop, or at least be in total control of it. There are those who are still willing to talk and those who want the talking to stop.
What I do know from visiting the fence ten years ago is that if you want the violence to end, you have to keep talking. Silence can heal and words can hurt but silence becomes oppressive when it leads to suppression. Words become healing when they speak the truth and honor feelings.
I wonder what Matt would have been doing with his life now, at age 31. I wonder what he would say to us now, if he could. I suppose we’ll never know.
But I do know that we help prevent such things happening again by honoring and remembering. And by talking and listening. I also know I don’t want to live in a world where the people silenced are the b/g/l/t people, the people of color, the differently abled, and women. I’ve been there and seen the results.
I’m sorry that Matthew and so many others had to be our silent teachers.
For me at least, life–where I can be open and myself, not hide parts of myself, talk about the realities of homophobia, racism, sexism, and ableism, and other oppression–is so
much easier than it was 20 years ago.
Engage the world. Have the conversation. Make a difference, wherever you live.