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T&T can lead the way in equal rights
Wyoming is a state buried deep in the map of the United States.
Landlocked between Montana, Idaho, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado and Utah, it is also buried deep in the American psyche, one of its forgotten places.
The state was also the scene of the murder of a 21-year-old young man, Matthew Shepard, who was tortured and beaten because he was gay, tied to a fence and left to die in a field on the outskirts of a city called Laramie in 1998. Sparsely populated, God-fearing states like Wyoming are a breeding ground for all kinds of prejudices. Racism, sexism and homophobia.
The 2005 Oscar winning film Brokeback Mountain—where two cowboys fall in love in the summer of 1963 before one of the cowboys is bludgeoned to death by a gang—is also set in Wyoming.
Wyoming is a beautiful place, where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains, but it is home to some ugly prejudices.
“What happened to Matt may have happened here,” Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, told an audience, including Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and Chief Justice Ivor Archie, last week at the Napa in Port-of-Spain.
“But you don’t know about it. You keep no statistics. You have no laws to protect people. You tolerate but you don’t accept. There’s a big difference in those two words.”
The audience had just watched a screening of The Laramie Project, a film based on Matthew’s killing which dramatised the accounts of local people who knew him and the two local boys who killed him.
Dennis Shepard spoke slowly and carefully. Pausing, as though letting the words sink in.
Afterwards, Ramlogan and Archie chatted with Matthew Shepard’s bereaved parents as well as the staff of the US Embassy—who were responsible for inviting the Shepards to T&T.
Also in attendance were House Speaker Wade Mark, acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams and Catholic priest Fr Stephen Geofroy.
The mood was, in a sense, celebratory.
It is an achievement that events like this are now taking place in T&T. A sign of the times, of a movement gathering pace.
Role of social media
While offensive comments are still uttered publicly—like those of artist LeRoy Clarke who suggested that homosexuality is a threat to the arts and a tool to recruit gang members—they no longer go unchallenged, thanks in part to social media sites like Facebook, which people use as a platform from which to speak out.
Anti-gay voices are also loud on Facebook and in real life and what is most shocking is that, in most cases, the bigotry, hate and intolerance comes from people claiming to represent God.
Which is why the support of the clergy is hugely welcomed.
Fr Geofroy’s bravery in speaking in support of equality for gays at the national consultation on constitutional reform meeting in February should not be underestimated.
The position of Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church is also now unequivocally clear—God loves all human beings equally, gay or straight.
That Catholicism should be the first of the world’s monotheistic religions to modernise itself on the issue is fascinating, giving the centuries it spent obsessing over all manner of “sins”, of which homosexuality was seen as a major one.
There are gay priests, we now know. It is no longer a dirty secret.
A 2002 poll in the Los Angeles Times which surveyed 1,854 US priests across the country found that 15 per cent of them identified themselves as either gay or bisexual.
When other Christian denominations and religions begin to accept gay and lesbian people, we could be well on our way to a world free of homophobia.
Homophobia will disappear
Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy, dried her eyes after her moving speech which preceded her husband’s at Napa. Then Archie gave her a hug and Ramlogan shook her hand. It was a touching moment.
She then said she is sure there will come a time when homophobia and hate no longer exist.
“I don’t know if we’ll see it in my lifetime. But I know the younger kids don’t understand the hate that’s going on,” she said.
In T&T, with a young, intelligent, well-travelled population, that is certainly the case.
Young people, by and large, are not homophobes. Like so many prejudices the world has battled with, homophobia is spread by the older generation.
“My mother was a terrible bigot,” Judy Shepard told me.
“But I’m a product of the 60s so everything about us was acceptance and love for everyone. I’m sure my mother had no idea what to do with me, trying to raise a child in the 60s, but it was a whole different mindset then.”
Shepard knows where hate comes from.
“It’s a learned behaviour. You learn it from your environment, mass media, your parents, grandparents, your church, all over the place. You’re not born knowing how to do that, you’re not born knowing how to love either. You learn them both.”
She also knows religion plays a part in intolerance, but again, that’s no excuse.
“I’ve sort of come to the conclusion after all these years that people really hide behind their religion to protect their own biases,” she said. “When people say “it’s because of what I believe in,” they really mean “I think it’s wrong so I’m going to use my religion to justify it.”
T&T can take lead in Caribbean
Not a lot has changed in Wyoming in the 16 years since Matthew was left dying on that fence, covered in blood and looking, according to the cyclist who found him, like a scarecrow.
“Wyoming still has no state gay crime laws,” Judy Shepard told the audience.
“No state job protection at federal level for gay people. No gay bars. People still have to go to Denver to go to gay bars.
“We still live in Wyoming and we love it there and we hope to change the politics. Dennis calls us a constant poke in the eye for people who live there. They wish we would just shut the heck up. But we don’t. Because creating the environment that gay people are the devil incarnate, gives society permission to harm them, emotionally, physically and mentally.”
As for T&T, the Shepards came here for a reason. They think the country, as a thought leader in the region, has an important role to play.
Dennis Shepard said, “When we came here a lot of people did research (on us). Well, I did research also. T&T is the leader in the Caribbean, what happens here eventually happens in the rest of the Caribbean. Being here is a start.
“You can continue being a leader by working for equality, not gay rights. There is no such thing as gay rights. I’m talking about equal rights. It starts here, with your help and your support, start the discussion about equal rights.”
Judy and Dennis, who established the Matthew Shepard Foundation, have been all over the world telling their story, fighting for equality.
Here in the Caribbean, laws and public attitudes lag behind those of countries like Canada, Australia and the Netherlands, where homosexuality is seen as an essential part of a society’s rich tapestry of diversity.
After T&T, the Shepards travelled to Jamaica, where violence towards the gay community is commonplace and where those who support gay people are also likely to be victimised.
They weren’t scared or intimidated.
It’s rare in life you meet two people as strong and unafraid as they are. Or as compassionate.
They even asked the court which tried their son’s murderers to spare their lives when they could have been given the death penalty.
Perhaps, when you lose your son to a crime you simply do not understand, your fear evaporates, replaced by a word repeated by Doc O’Connor, a friend of the budding academic Matthew Shepard shortly before his death: Hope.