I was six years old when Matthew Shepard was beaten and left for dead by two men who were tormented by his very existence as a gay man. Twenty years later, his story has resurfaced in social and mainstream media as he was finally laid to rest at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. last weekend.
At the time of Matthew’s murder, I was far too young to understand what happened. My grandparents were fifty-seven; my mother was twenty-eight. None of them would have imagined I would be like Matthew. Like most people, they presumed their little girl to be straight.
The Pulse shooting was the first major instance of violent homophobia to shake my consciousness. I was twenty-four – just three years into living authentically as queer – and I remember in my body the anguish I felt. The shooting took place six days before Ada’s and my wedding. It was then the deadliest single-day mass shooting since 1949 in the United States.
Not long after Pulse, my grandmother asked, “You and Ada don’t go to gay bars, do you?”
Her question left me indignant. Now, I can hear the concern beneath her words. She has lived fifty years longer than I have in a heteronormative, homophobic world. She fears for me.
Through Their Eyes
Over a dozen years later, when I came out to my mother and grandparents, Matthew Shepard’s murder didn’t flash before their eyes. But the impact that his and other stories of anti-LGBTQ violence shaded their perspective.
Being small town folks of a certain generation, they had little direct experience with out queer people. Most of what they knew about the world beyond theirs came from what they saw on television.
What they saw on television imbued them with bias against LGBTQ people. Over the course of their lives, they’ve seen queer people deemed ill and institutionalized. They’ve seen queer people defamed by politicians and church leaders. They’ve seen the AIDS crisis. They’ve seen pride parades – celebrations of our self-worth – discredited or used as the butt of jokes. They’ve seen queer people spat upon, beaten, and killed.
More recently, my TV-attuned family has also seen queer people elected to public office. They’ve learned that their favorite newscaster (shout out to Robin Roberts) and favorite musician (shout out to Brandi Carlile) are queer. They’ve seen out-and-proud Adam Rippon skate on the Olympic ice.
More importantly, they’ve seen me living an authentic, happy, and healthy life.
Through Their Pain
I’ve heard it said and found it to be true that it takes only one or two examples to confirm a stereotype but a hundred to debunk it. So despite these exemplars of queer positivity in our culture, my family will likely never outgrow their internalized fear for queer people like me. I can’t blame them for that. The trauma has been too vast and too deep.
Lately, my faith has been teaching me to better embrace grief. The Bible is filled with examples of deep mourning: the loss of a homeland, the loss of political independence, the loss of a child, the loss of a Savior. These are not happy stories, and it can be tempting to mine through them until a mountain’s worth of suffering is stripped away only to focus on a gem of hope.
There is value in accepting the grief that my family feels when they remember that mine is a people still in danger. By accepting their grief, I can love them better.
When the next act of anti-LGBTQ violence makes national headlines, I won’t be dismissive toward my loved ones when they ask: “You and Ada don’t hold hands on the street, do you?” or “You won’t talk about being gay on the internet, right?” I do, and I do. And frankly, sometimes I share their fears.
I hope that someday my family’s fearful whispers might turn to shouts of joy, that their mourning might turn to dancing. Chances are, though, it won’t.
For me, that’s okay. I understand why they mourn: they mourn because they love. Between us is a gulf of misunderstanding: there’s much about me that they don’t understand, and there’s much about them that I don’t understand either. But they care – care enough to fear. And that makes me love them all the more.
Featured image: album cover of Considering Matthew Shepard – Composed by Craig Hella Johnson