Let’s be honest here. Things for marginalized communities are particularly bad everywhere right now, including (or especially depending on your point of view) the States. I have to ask a question though…did it really get that much better at any point? Because to be honest, I don’t think it did.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE 1990S AND lgbtqia+
If you weren’t a closeted teen in the 1990s (or even a teen for those older readers. or even alive for the younger ones), then you can not fully grasp what it was to be LGBTQ in this decade. Believe me when I tell you that for many of us it was a time not just of the typical confusion and rigamarole that comes with being a queer teen at any time, but also a time of immense fear.
See in the 1990s, we had virtually no protections or rights as a community. There was no legal gay marriage. Crimes against LGBTQIA+ people were not considered hate crimes. There were policies in place such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA). These policies were legal discrimination against our community.
In the early and well into the mid-90s, there was still a lot of ignorance and fearmongering over HIV and AIDs, with the belief that it was a gay issue lingering in the private sector of the population long after science switched its stance on the topic. Seeing signs stating that this horrible disease was “God’s Solution To Gays (insert slur here)” had an indelible and lasting effect on every single one of us.
If you were still not completely scared into staying deep in the closet at this point, October 7, 1998, dawned, and with it the terrifying news of Matthew Shepard.
Matthew Shepard’s Murder
On October 6, 21-year-old college student Matt Shepard was discovered tied to a fence in Laramie, WY, beaten beyond recognition as even a human, let alone as Matthew Shepard. As the case unfolded, two men (I will not give these two homophobic convicted murderers any name recognition here, they have plenty of it already) were arrested and convicted of killing Matt because he was gay.
Let me interject here that I am well aware of the counter-narrative that has arisen in the two-plus decades since his murder. I however am not entertaining any fables that this was not a hate crime and was instead a drug-related killing. That is a retelling of a tragic tale as framed by homophobic and far-right-leaning journalists, and the evidence backs this up. Go back and read the transcripts from the trials. Go look at the days of press releases from the hospital treating him and the cops investigating.
Matthew Shepard was killed because he was gay. The killers admitted that they didn’t like that he was openly gay. They admitted they lured him out by pretending to be gay. They employed the gay panic defense. Nothing was said or any evidence presented at that time or 13 years after it that the 5’2, maybe 150 lb gentle soul was the new game in the Wyoming Meth game. The evidence presented after 13 years was a book written by a journalist who again had no receipts, just wild theories and tall tales supported only by the far-right who applauded the book.
I am not giving the book or its author any space here.
A few things.
Six years after the murder, the two convicted killers gave an interview on ABC where they again implied that Matt hitting on one of them was the trigger point and stated that they decided to lure him out of the Fireside Bar not to teach him a lesson for being openly gay – which was a consistent part of the story during the investigation, trial and the years after it – but instead stated that he looked like he had money and they needed money as they were in debt to dealers.
Even in this tale, the murderers did not state that they knew Matthew from this drug life. They simply stated that he looked like a lucrative and easy mark. They had always danced between this and the gay panic defense, so it was not earth-shattering breaking news.
In 2018, a local paper did a deep dive into the issue, and for the first time gained access to its obituary report of Matt. There was no Meth or Cocaine in his system. The coroner stated that this was a deeply passionate crime likely driven by hate. Meth and cocaine are detectable in the body for 90 days after the fact. If he was as deep in the lifestyle as the revisionists want the public at large to believe, it would have been detected in the autopsy.
I choose to not play into the hands of anyone trying to tear down the story of Matthew Shepard. They use his HIV-positive status to paint him as a playboy, and his use of weed, alcohol, and anti-depressants – all of which were present in his system during the autopsy – to try and tear him down and somehow break the movement that galvanized the LGBTQIA+ youth of 1998.
Here is the deal. Anyone who has taken the time to actually study LGBTQIA+ history will agree that Matthew Shepard had his faults, as do all 21-year-olds. Drinking and smoking weed is hardly the deeply damaging and tragic tale that Meth Addicts deal with. His HIV status at the moment was very much swept under the rug, though in the years since many have worked to rectify that – especially his family.
How he contracted the virus is also up for debate, and in case you were wondering is absolutely not your or my business. In the 1990s gay men were contracting HIV at a rate that made it an epidemic. Matt having the virus, whether from casual sex that many college students enjoy or from the story of his brutal gang rape abroad, is truly irrelevant.
Having HIV does absolutely nothing to make the brutal slaughter of the young man less of a tragedy, which those who want to destroy the movement his death sparked seem to think that it will. The fact that they try to use it as an insult to his legacy should tell you everything you need to know.
Now that it is clear exactly where I stand on the matter…
Impact of Matthew Shepard’s Murder On LGBTQIA+ Youth In The 90s – Then & Now
How exactly did a young college student’s death in Laramie, Wyoming affect an entire nation of LGBTQIA+ youth, including a fifteen-year-old girl in Upstate NY (that’s me)? Laramie, WY is 1,737.4 miles away from Unadilla, NY where I grew up. It takes 25 hours to get there. How on earth could this have affected me in any way?
It affected me in EVERY way. It shaped my entire journey as a Pan woman and lit in me a fire that I kept extinguishing and pulling into the closet with me as I went through the internal journey of being okay letting people know that I am a proud member of this community and one who will loudly and consistently fight for the equal rights that should be commonplace and not so often withheld.
See, as mentioned earlier this was already a scary time to be coming to the realization that you were not straight. The aftermath of the horrendous way gay men were treated in the 1980s and early 90s in regards to the HIV and AIDS epidemic was fresh. Discrimination against the community was normal practice, and hearing news of another gay-related hate crime – though not classified as that – was commonplace.
The gay-panic defense was prominent and it seemed to me that saying out loud I had anything but normal feelings towards boys was not going to be a way for me to thrive in small-town life. The year before we had watched Ellen DeGeneres come out to fanfare, but to more controversy and a lot of people weighing in with hate. Earlier in 1998, her show aired its last episode – and it was clear she had lost it because she said the words she was gay.
In that environment, we got the news about Matt Shepard. So at the end of the day, none of the negative talks was needed. Kids like me who had known for so long that something about them was different were already scared. I am not sure if anyone in my life knew exactly how close I was following the news over those six days. Or how much I cried on October 12 when Matt finally succumbed to his injuries and passed away. I hid it. I had gotten the message the world was sending to people like me loud and clear.
That message was simple. We will push you down, we will deny you and we will do whatever we can to stamp you out – even if that means killing you.
I had been honest with few people up to that point, and then I simply stopped bringing it up or talking about it at all. I kept my head down and my mouth shut. But the fire was burning. Always. All it took was going to college and being out to people for the first time to take all of these things that formed my identity as a Queer to slowly start coming out.
Once you face your first scary and violent bout discrimination by people who hate you so much for simply walking around a college campus holding your girlfriend’s hand, you take a personal inventory of yourself and what comes out is likely to be a reaction to not only that specific incident but what you already had internalized from growing up. However, when Matthew Shepard crossed my mind that time, I didn’t push the flame the incident lit down. I finally began to embrace it.
I wasn’t the only one. Look at the people in your life. Look at anyone who is an “elder Millenial” or Gen Y (yup – still a thing). We are the ones who you saw fighting for marriage equality side by side with the awesome LGBTQIA+ advocates from the 1980s. We are the ones who came out, got loud, and refused to go back into the closet. We are the ones who have tried to make it better for the youth in our community by being vocal about how it was growing up with this fear and with virtually no representation.
And we are the ones now watching rights be stripped away, fearing what is going to be taken next with a certain degree of heaviness. We do not want to go back to watching our younger generations seeing even more open hatred and discrimination than they see now. To watch us become second-class citizens again – or even illegal.
To waking up one cold October morning and hearing the news of a 21-year-old gay man being beaten almost to death and hearing the debate everywhere of if he deserved it for being gay. Do those places already still exist, and are those arguments going to be out there anyway? Of course. Hatred of those who are different will always exist. We however loved it, we internalized it, and we did all of the long and hard work to try and prevent the prevalence and commonplaceness of it in shaping LGBTQIA+ youth after us.
Honestly, I look around and I think no it’s not perfect but you can see where we had an impact. There is representation now, not as much as there should be, but it is so much better than when we grew up. There are so many programs in existence now that weren’t around for us, like the Trevor Project. The messages we have pounded into the heads of the younger Millenials of it will get better and you are not alone, you are loved have taken root and created a generation that is so much more open and accepting than the one we grew up in.
Now we watch as that all may be stripped away and we return to the world where Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence to die with no dignity and no humanity – because of who he was sexually attracted.
We don’t want that for the youth of today. In a community where suicide rates are still higher than those of their cis, straight peers, we need no more reasons for them to fear being themselves. We don’t want another generation to go through the feelings we did, especially one that doesn’t know exactly how bad it can be. Because bad as it still is, it is a kinder and gentler world for Gen Z and Generation Alpha than we had growing up. At least for now.
So those of us growing up in the 90s who were implicitly and irreparable touched and shaped by Matthew Shepard will again take a deep breath. We will revisit that moment when we heard that people hate us so much that they will beat us to death like we are less than human. We will again unite and fight. Because that is who we are. That is what growing up LGBTQIA+ in America in the 1990s made us.
At least, that is how I see it.