Why is it important to keep telling the story of Matthew Shepard, a college student from Wyoming who was kidnapped, robbed, beaten, and killed in 1998 simply because he was gay? I would like nothing better than to stop telling his story. I would like nothing better than to live in a world where his story was no longer relevant. A world in which gay bashings no longer happened. A world in which everyone could walk this earth free of fear regardless of sexual orientation and gender expression (not to mention race, religion, body size, ability/disability, etc.). But that is not yet the world in which we live. Our world is still a dangerous place. In our world, too often the word “gay” is used to mean “stupid” (as in “That’s so gay”). In our world, too often the word “fag” is hurled at someone with hatred. And in our world, too often that word is followed by a punch or a kick or a shove down the stairs. Or worse. When will this hatred end?
When someone is reduced to a slur, they become, in the eyes of a tormentor, less than human. They become, in a tormentor’s eyes, someone of no consequence, someone who doesn’t matter, someone—or something—easy to destroy.
And this is why we must keep telling Matthew Shepard’s story. Matt was not a “fag.” Matt was a person. He was a son, a brother, a boyfriend, a classmate, a friend. In the Jewish tradition, which is my tradition, it is said, “Whoever saves a life, saves a whole world.” I believe that the opposite is also true. Whoever destroys a life, destroys a whole world. We will never know all the great things Matthew Shepard would have done had he not been murdered (ironically, he wanted to work for international social justice). We will never know how he would have looked once his braces were removed. We will never know what he would have done upon graduating from the University of Wyoming. We will never know if, later in life, he would have married and raised children. We will never know all the joy and love he would have continued to bring to his family and friends and to those he had yet to meet. When his life was cut short, a whole world was destroyed.
In my tradition there is a concept known as “tikkun olam” which means “repairing the world.” Every person is assigned this task at birth even though it is assumed that our broken world will never be fully repaired. Still, each one of us must contribute to “tikkun olam” in some way. It is also assumed that no individual can do this alone. And that is why I am so excited to be working with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and Candlewick Press. Together we can do so much. Together we can reach high school educators and administrators, political activists, LGBT youth, librarians, parents, and readers of teen literature, all of whom can work together to carry on Matthew Shepard’s legacy to make the world a safer place.
In my lifetime, so much has changed. The high school I attended (and where I was teased for being a “lezzy”) now has a Gay-Straight Alliance, which welcomed me with open arms 40 years after I graduated (to read about this very emotional visit, see my essay “You CAN Go Home Again”). I am happily and legally married to the woman of my dreams, something I never dreamed would be possible. I make my living as an out lesbian writer, whose books are read and taught in public schools all around the country. I find all of this nothing short of miraculous.
And yet, so much hasn’t changed. Kids and teens still get teased, beat up, tormented, and even murdered for being gay or for being perceived as being gay. There are many states that still define marriage as being “between one man and one woman.” There are still many people—writers, teachers, celebrities, athletes—who are afraid they will lose their jobs if they come out of the closet.
Help us make the world a safer place. Read Matt’s story and teach it to your classes. Honor him on the Day of Silence, which occurs every year in April (this year it falls on April 11). Read poems about Matthew Shepard in your classroom during National Poetry Month (April). Make your school a safe place for LGBT students. Get involved in your school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and if your school doesn’t have one, help your students start one. Make your curriculum LGBT-inclusive. Plan lessons specifically around LGBT History Month (October) and National Coming Out Day (October 11). Be the person at your school who disrupts inappropriate behavior. So many students have told me that when someone at their school is called “a fag” the adults around them do nothing. Do something. You could save a life, and in doing so, save a whole world.
Visit glsen.org/matthewshepard to download He Continues to Make a Difference: Commemorating the Life of Matthew Shepard and find other resources for creating LGBT-inclusive curriculum.
Lesléa Newman is an author and gay rights activist who has written more than 60 books for readers of all ages. Her children's book, HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES was the first picture book to portray a family of two lesbian mothers and their child in a positive way. Lesléa is also the author of the teen novel-in-verse, OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD which explores the impact of Matthew Shepard's murder in a cycle of 68 poems told from various points of view including the truck he was kidnapped in, the fence to which he was tied, the stars that watched over him, and a deer that kept him company all through the night. OCTOBER MOURNING has won many literary awards including an American Library Association Stonewall Honor, and the Florida Council of Teachers of English Joan F. Kaywell Award. Lesléa has given her presentation, "He Continues to Make a Difference: The Story of Matthew Shepard" all over the country at high schools, colleges, libraries, and conferences, hoping to inspire students to carry on Matthew Shepard's legacy to erase hate and make the world a safer place for all. Visit Lesléa online at www.lesleakids.com.
It is difficult growing up different from everyone else, and being gay in Asian culture is no different. Growing up, there was nothing I wanted more than to fit in, but fitting in meant abandoning my identity.
Around the same time I began to understand my sexuality and come to terms with being gay, I also realized there is simply no room for diversity in a society that supports uniformity. I am an Asian Pacific Islander of Chinese and Filipino descent. And as a gay Asian born and raised in the United States, I found myself in an uncomfortable culture that combines strict Asian traditions, the American lifestyle and the stigma of being gay, all in one inferior reinforcement: I was less than.
I look at myself in the mirror only to be disappointed by my appearance—an introverted, skinny, four-eyed braceface with small eyes and dainty, effeminate features. I did not see the masculine, hypersexual confident male model I saw in the media and internalized, telling me what I thought I should be.
I was put to shame. I felt like a conundrum. I was rejected by my Asian culture for being gay and shunned by LGBT circles for my Asian heritage. The backhanded homophobic comments from my Asian family and the racist compliments from the gay community—including, but not limited to, “You’re hot—for an Asian.”—undermined my confidence and left me feeling isolated and alone.
I tried so hard to fit in this mold, only to be miserable. But as I grew older, it was through my advocacy work in the LGBT movement that I discovered a community that shared the same experiences as my own. Today, I have learned to see my authentic, beautiful self. I discovered that the truth to my identity is not to live a life that fits into the norm, but pushes against it. The flaws I thought I had were never imperfections at all, but rather flawless perfections that defined who I am. I now embrace my odd charm and awkward likeableness because they make me different.
The understanding of who I am, as both gay and Asian, has made me a strong person. The slow realization that I was not a nobody, but a “somebody,” taught me to love myself and to own my individuality. I have become a person who respects all people, regardless of any marginalized characteristic decided by society. Coming to terms with my identity has only fueled my aspiration to end racial discrimination and LGBT inequality, and for that, I will be forever grateful and happy.
Matthew Yeung is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
When I first became a GLSEN Ambassador, I had a hard time feeling supported by others around me. I live in a conservative town, so you could imagine that being a transgender boi didn't prove to make me very popular. It took me a while to become confident enough to show everyone who I truly was. It's been a long, hard journey, and I hit a lot of roadblocks on the way.
But I was lucky enough to have known another trans guy for almost five years now; he has helped me so much and made me feel like I wasn't so different from everyone else. He always had advice for me and has really taken care of me over the years.
Having a role model has made all the difference in my life, and I don't think I'd be as successful as I am today without him. So many transgender kids all over the world feel like somewhat of an outcast at some point in their lives. I believe that having someone to look up to could really make a difference to these boys, and may even save lives.
It's for this reason that I recently started an international collaborative channel on YouTube. I gathered a group of about seven guys from all over the world and created the first international female-to-male (FTM) collab channel. One of the guys on the channel is my brother, and one of the other guys on the channel I met online. As far as everyone else goes, I advertised on my blog and had people send me audition videos for review.
We have such a diverse and unique group of people, and I feel that by making videos and possibly mentoring one another and our viewers, we can create that same feeling of acceptance that I felt in having my trans brother in my life.
We have just started making videos, so now is the perfect time to start following us. We will be covering several different trans-related issues and providing tips on everything from binding safely to hormones.
The channel is called Gender Bender Bois, and we make videos Monday-Sunday every week. We hope you can check it out!
Dannie Dobbins is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
February is Black History Month, and it makes me very motivated as an activist for LGBT rights. As a GLSEN Ambassador, I think it’s important this time of year to reflect on how we as a society treat other people regardless of their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
As we all know, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought endlessly for something he truly believed in: equality and freedom for African-Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a living inspiration, and now that he is gone, his legacy still remains today in society and within me.
In my early childhood I participated in a school play which told the story of Rosa Parks, and at that time we also learned about Dr. King through reading some of his inspiring speeches. This would be the first time I ever came across the story of Martin Luther King, and it was also the day that I found a new role model. Being so young and clueless at the time, I didn't know much about the real world, particularly the history of prejudice against African-Americans and how poorly they were treated.
However, learning about Dr. King taught me that it is very valuable to spread love and to treat everyone with kindness. This inspired me because growing up I was always a happy kid, and now that I am an adult, I can see that society needs so much improvement when it comes to treating all our citizens equally.
Dr. King was a strong believer in standing up for yourself and teaching others to do the same. Since I first learned about him, I have been inspired by how one man tried to change the world. I try to apply Dr. King’s message to my work as an LGBT activist by being open-minded, and treating people with kindness, equality and respect, even if they do not always treat me the same way.
Dr. King taught me to always be the better person, and influenced me to change the world one man at a time.
Dustin Gallegos is a high school senior and a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
Assembly Bill 1266, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, took effect January 1, allowing transgender students to fully participate in activities, facilities, and programs based on their gender identity. An opposition group, Privacy For All Students (PFAS), collected signatures during the fall to put the matter before voters as a referendum on the 2014 ballot as an attempt to overturn the measure. According to a representative sample of the signatures collected across the state, PFAS came up 22,178 short of the 504,760 qualified signatures needed for the referendum to be placed on the November 4 ballot. However, a sample count between 95 and 110 percent of the target number triggers an automatic full count of all submitted signatures, under state law. Currently, counties are conducting the raw count, and county registrars of voters have until February 24 to complete their full check of all submitted signatures.
Here’s looking at AB1266: past, present and future.
Introduced in February 2013 by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (CA-17) and co-authored by Senators Mark Leno (CA-3) and Ricardo Lara (CA-33), the School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266) makes clear the obligation of California schools to allow transgender students to participate in all school activities, programs, and facilities. It is designed to spell out the requirements of existing federal and state law in California statute so school administrators, educators, parents, and students understand their obligations and rights. Those requirements are that all students in California be allowed to participate fully in school so they can thrive and achieve academic success. It restates existing state law prohibiting discrimination against transgender students in public education and permitting students to participate in sex-segregated facilities and activities based on their gender identity.
While existing California law already broadly prohibits discrimination against transgender students, AB1266 makes sure that schools understand their responsibility for the success and well-being of all students and that parents and students understand their rights.
GLSEN and several coalition partners of AB1266 including Equality California, Transgender Law Center, Gay-Straight Alliance Network, National Center for Lesbian Rights, ACLU of California, and Gender Spectrum have been working over the past year to advocate and support for the passage of this legislation. GLSEN and its California chapters produced several action alerts and supported oral testimony from Eli Erlick, one of GLSEN’s Student Ambassadors. Thanks in part to these efforts, the bill passed through the Education Committee 5-2, the California Senate with a 21-9 vote and the State Assembly with a 46-25 vote. Once it moved to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for consideration, coalition partners geared for a similar campaign to ensure he supported and signed the bill. On August 12, 2013, Gov. Brown signed the bill.
Opposition and Referendum
Unfortunately, the legislative process wasn’t over once the bill became law. After AB1266 became law, opponents, including an anti-LGBT coalition called Privacy for All Students, filed for a veto referendum to overturn the law. A referendum refers to a group that opposes the new law and is able to collect enough signatures within the statutory time frame to place that new law on a ballot for the voters to either ratify or reject. The minimum number required for a California referendum is 504,760 valid signatures of registered voters. The opposition submitted 619,244 unverified signatures by the November 8 deadline.
On January 8, California completed a review of a random sample of the signatures. The state does the scientific sampling so as not to expend unnecessary resources verifying every signature if it’s not necessary. The sampling led to a projection of 482,550 valid signatures. While the total does not reach the needed threshold to qualify, it is within the range that the state considers necessary to trigger a full recount.
The full count must be finished by election officials no later than February 24.
GLSEN and its California chapters will continue to work with state partners to ensure that all students in California have equal access to education opportunities, and that districts and school leaders protect the safety of all students. We will continue to engage our constituents, schools and districts to ensure that students and educators have the support needed to ensure that all California students are able to attend school without discrimination or harassment.
Are you attending the 26th National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change this week in Houston? Make sure to stop by GLSEN's table and workshops throughout the conference!
Here's a schedule of where you can find us:
When you are young and queer in Mexico, coming out is not an option.
I was born and raised in Durango, a relatively conservative state in which the mere topic of homosexuality is rarely discussed. Like most kids, growing up, I didn't know what being gay really meant. I was simply told that this was a very bad thing, a way for Satan to separate us from God, and that I didn't have anything to worry about, because I wasn't “one of them.”
As I grew older, homophobic slurs became a staple of everyone’s vocabulary. I never knew anyone who was out, and no one in my grade ever mentioned any sort of doubts about their sexuality. As far as everyone was concerned, we were all straight. During my time there, many of my teachers felt the need to express their opinions and it was not uncommon for them to say hurtful things about LGBT people. For example: “Even though you should be respectful, this is wrong and you should not do it.” Or: “Let’s face it; humans live their lives looking for excitement. Once you feel like you've tried everything and you are bored with your life, people become gay, which is why there are so many gay celebrities.”
This was widely accepted by my classmates. It created an extremely unsafe environment, where bullying and harassment towards members of the LGBT community were seen as normal and acceptable.
When I got to tenth grade, I decided to move to the United States, looking for a more diverse and accepting place to live, and to this day, that has been the best decision I have made. The first time I walked on campus, I noticed a bulletin board for my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. I was very surprised by it, but I couldn’t have been happier. As I walked around campus, many doors had Safe Space stickers. Later that same day, I got to meet my adviser, who is an openly gay man, and I learned that he was just one of many in our school. These things may have seemed small for a lot of people, but they meant the world to me. I had never heard of anything like this before, but I immediately knew that I had finally found a place where I could be safe.
Today, I am incredibly grateful for both of my experiences. Being in Mexico was hard, but it taught me a lot about what it means to be queer, and it made me more sensitive to other people's identities and their struggles. It helped me become stronger, and gave me something to fight for. I will be graduating from Rutgers Prep this June, and I am really happy to be a part of this community. Attending a school that allowed me to be who I am helped me to form a strong identity, and to become a much happier person.
Paulina Aldaba is a high school senior at Rutgers Prep and a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
With GLSEN's No Name-Calling Week now in full swing across the country, I find it amazing to reflect on what this event has become in its 10th anniversary year. In 2004, when we launched the first year's activities, we had no idea what it would become. We only knew how critical it was to begin reaching students in the younger grades with LGBT-inclusive messages and curricular materials, to address the cycle of name-calling and disrespect before it escalated to the kinds of violence we'd documented taking place in K-12 schools. Many attacked us for daring to say anything about LGBT issues in materials for younger students, even though it was crystal clear that the problems we raised were old news by the end of elementary school.
After the first year, reports from the field let us know that we'd struck a chord and made a difference. An evaluation of Year One participation found that a majority of students who had taken part in No Name-Calling Week activities reported experiencing, witnessing and perpetrating less name-calling at school afterwards. And the event kept growing, with more and more schools getting their whole communities involved by the time of our Year Four evaluation.
I found it thrilling to see how this crazy idea was turning into a powerful reality. Perhaps the most precious -- and painful -- validation of our commitment came from the words of students themselves. In 2004, The Misfits author James Howe visited Merrill Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa, winner of the first No Name-Calling Week lesson plan contest. In the wake of his visit and speech to the school, he received a flood of messages from Merrill students.
James wrote to me and my colleagues in the most bittersweet terms as he shared the students' words. They were so hard to read, yet gave such concrete confirmation of the importance of this new initiative.
Sometimes I go to the bathroom after lunch and cry like there is no tomorrow. Every night before I go to sleep I cry until I fall asleep. There's been so many times where I didn't want to come to school.
The whole time I've gone to this school I have been called a faggot, been sexually harassed by another student, been asked if I was a girl, and been shunned. I have considered suicide many times.
I was one day being kind of mean to someone to get a lot of laughs and I just realized that this person I was treating like a bug had feelings, too. I wish I would've said sorry.
I liked your speech. It made me think hard. I know that I hate being made fun of and you made me realize that I shouldn't call others names because it really tears them down... Thank you for helping me make a difference.
Their experiences and their commitment to making a difference made me cry.
Over the years, No Name-Calling Week has reached tens of thousands of K-12 classrooms, and is becoming an established part of the school calendar. We've seen concrete progress in reducing the rates of victimization that LGBT students face in school, and we've been able to turn our attention to the positive side of the equation -- celebrating kindness and fostering a culture of respect. That is truly a joy. And as in each of the years over the last decade, I hope GLSEN's No Name-Calling Week and all of our partners in it continue to set kindness on the march, until every corner of every school is illuminated by its warmth.
Eliza Byard, Executive Director
Originally published on the Huffington Post Gay Voices.
Jewlyes Gutierrez, an open transgender student in Contra Costa County, has been the center of constant harassment and bullying by her peers. Gutierrez has been charged with misdemeanor battery for defending herself against a physical attack by three girls at Hercules High School that took place on November 13. The dispute surrounding the incident has fueled national headlines and sparked an online petition in support of Gutierrez. Family members and supporters are encouraging the Contra Costa County Superior Court to drop the criminal charges against the transgender teen.
Whether the students targeted this girl because she is transgender or for some unknown reason, filing charges against her sends the wrong message to LGBTQ youth. Putting an already vulnerable person through criminal prosecution does not solve the problem. We must look into what the causation for the attack was and start there. Because the school administration did not properly address the situation and no necessary action was put in place to safeguard her, Gutierrez was forced to take matters into her own hands. No student should be in fear of their physical safety due to who they are.
Violence against LGBTQ youth is a serious problem. As a student who lives and attends school in Contra Costa County, I found it worrisome to hear the news of an individual being a victim of bullying and facing harsh penalties for standing up for herself, with no similar claim taken against the attackers. It is already difficult for any student to stand up against bullies. Tackling violence in schools is not a ‘first step’ that has the potential to launch more conversation; it is, right now, an eclipsing step, that has allowed us to overlook the core causes of harassment faced by LGBTQ youth.
No youth should feel the need to use brute force to protect themselves. School should be a safe and inclusive environment for every student. Hopefully Gutierrez will find justice, but sadly her situation is all too similar to the many struggles faced by LGBTQ youth across the nation. This incident serves as a teachable lesson to value and respect all individuals regardless of their sexuality or gender identity and expression.
Matthew Y. is a high school junior and a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
GLSEN student leaders all over the country continue to make a difference even after they graduate from high school. One former Ambassador has brought his story to a national public service campaign to help students across the country who have faced similar challenges.
Characters Unite is USA Network's public service program advocating for an end to social injustice and cultural intolerance. The campaign invites athletes, actors and other public figures to speak about causes that matter to them, such as religious tolerance, diversity, and ending violence and hate crimes.
In a recent video for the campaign, Joey Kemmerling, a former GLSEN Student Ambassador, sits down with NFL player Victor Cruz to talk about the bullying he faced for being gay. Kemmerling, 19, tells Cruz about coming out in middle school and facing harassment from his peers, particularly in locker rooms and in school sports, and how school administrators didn't take any actions to help him.
"When I was 13, I knew that I was gay and I told about five people, but overnight it went from five people to the entire school knowing. I didn't realize that until I walked into the locker room and everyone stopped and stared at me," he tells Cruz. "After I came out, the locker room was the last place I wanted to be."
Cruz, a wide receiver for the New York Giants, faced discrimination growing up for his mixed-race heritage. He gave Kemmerling a tour of the Giants' locker room, and the two talked about how it felt to grow up feeling cast aside from their peers -- and how speaking out has helped them overcome problems from their pasts.
"It means so much more to me now to know that I'm here and to know that I can share this moment, which makes it that much better," Kemmerling says. "I found a voice and I overcame it, and I'm taking the next step on my journey."
Cruz was clearly touched by Kemmerling's story.
"More and more players want to make a change and want to step out and be a voice," he tells Kemmerling. "Hearing your story honestly has changed my life and changed my outlook."
We're so proud to work with Joey and see how far he's come. Make sure to check out the video!