This plea was made by Dennis Shepard whose son Matthew Shepard was murdered in October 1998 because he was gay. Dennis and his wife Judy Shepard spoke last Wednesday at the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine, at an open discussion hosted by the US Embassy.
“When we talk about equality, we are not talking about tolerance. We are talking about acceptance. You should accept everybody for who they are. We have to help each other meet their goals and dreams. You cannot do that by putting down a portion of the population,” Dennis said.
In October 1998, 21-year-old Matthew was tied to a split-rail fence by two men who severely assaulted him with the butt of a pistol. He was beaten, and left for dead.
Matthew’s murder in 1998 became one of the most “notorious” anti-gay hate crimes in American history. More than a decade later, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed. This law makes bias crimes directed at people in the LGBT community in America a federal crime.
Determined to prevent others from suffering a fate similar to their son’s, Judy and Dennis decided to turn their grief into action and established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to carry on Matthew’s legacy.
Dennis stated that all people are equal, and everyone has a right to be accepted. He said “equality was equality” and gay rights are human rights, so all citizens should be afforded the same equal rights.
“Everybody wants the same things; to have a career, a home, someone to love them, and die peacefully of old age. Straight, gay, black, white, Muslim, Hindu, we all want the same thing,” Dennis said.
Homosexuality was not a choice, Dennis asserted, and no one would choose to be persecuted and live in fear for their lives. He said his son did not choose to be gay, and he supported and loved Matthew.
Judy stated that she was hopeful that the society would become more accepting of the LGBT community. Since Matthew’s death, Judy said she has seen “great progress” towards equality in society. She noted that younger people were defining the change towards a more accepting society.
“We know younger people have a different idea of what this is about. In the US, recent polls have shown demographically that people under 30 don’t understand what the fuss is about.
“They don’t know why you should be fired from your job because you are gay, or why you cannot legally be with the one you love, just because of who you love,” Judy said.
After the open discussion, a group of persons from the Thusian Institute for Religious Liberty engaged in a row with some persons attending the discussion, many of whom were members of the LGBT community.
Members of the Thusian Institute argued that while everyone had a right to live, the choice of the “gay lifestyle” was an “abomination” and “unnatural.”
One man who identified himself as being “gay,” picked up a stone and challenged a person from the Thusian Institute to stone him since, he said, it was stated in Leviticus that the (homosexuals’) “blood shall be upon them.”
However, the person from the Thusian Institute adamantly denied stoning gay people was in the Bible.
Brendon O’Brien who attended the forum noted that the argument ended on different notes for different people.
He said, “Friends and allies of Matthew Shepard, and all he represents, came to this event to meet with Matthew’s parents who talked about acceptance and peace, only to be met with a religious group who called people abominations to their face. It is like a local version of the Westboro Baptist Church.” The Westboro Baptist Church is an American unaffiliated Baptist church known for its extreme ideologies, especially those against homosexuals.
O’Brien, who was involved in the debate with members of the Thusian Institute said the incident, which began as a heated debate turned into a boisterous verbal spat.
“It had stopped being a discussion. They were using the word ‘sodomites’ to describe homosexuals, but we were trying to explain to them that it was offensive to call people... sodomites and abominations,” O’Brien said.