Remembering Matthew Shepard: Silence Not an Option
Today marks the 13th anniversary of the brutal and vicious murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student at the University of Wyoming. On this night in 1998, two men lured Matthew into their truck and drove out to an isolated area, where they proceeded to tie him to a fence, beat him mercilessly and repeatedly pistol-whip him with a .357-Magnum handgun as he pled for his life. At around 6:30 p.m. the next day, he was found comatose, still tied to the fence, where he had been left for more than 18 hours in 30-degree weather. The deputy who arrived at the scene later stated that the only part of Matthew’s face where there was no blood was where his tears had washed it away. Matthew was rushed to a hospital, where he died on October 12, 1998.
The tragedy of Matthew’s death is so great that it is hard to say more. In the face of such unbridled, incomprehensible hatred, what can we do? How do we react?
In 2009, 11 years after the attack, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (signed into law by President Obama later that year), which has strengthened the ability of federal, state and local authorities to investigate and prosecute hate crimes. But more must be done–there is more we must do.
It is necessary to speak out – as Jews, as Americans, as human beings – against the ugliness that reared its head that October day 13 years ago. No person deserves to die the way Matthew Shepard did. No person should have to live in fear simply because of who they are. To speak out – to decry this violence, to oppose bigotry, to take a step closer to a better world – is not merely an option; it is a fundamental obligation. As it is written, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16).
It is not enough, then, to simply refrain from homophobia or refrain from violence. Rather, we must speak out, to stop the violence, to stanch the blood of our neighbors.
Matthew Shepard was not simply a victim at the hands of his attackers; he was the victim of a society that sent the message that who he was as a person was wrong. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” We are all responsible; every additional week that we do not work for justice, every day that passes in which we do not imbue in our children an ethic of acceptance and uprightness, every moment of our silence is an act of violence against our LGBT brothers and sisters.
As the Mishna tells us, “It is not our responsibility to finish the task, but we may not refrain from starting it.” It may be that we will never eradicate homophobia – or Islamophobia, or transphobia, or anti-Semitism – in our lifetimes; the task itself often feels overwhelming. But that is no excuse, for silence is not an option.