Gay rights activist addresses community about tolerance

gay rights event

The Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center hosted Judy Shepard, an advocate for action in the gay community, on Thursday, Sept. 16. Her son, Matthew Shepard, was kidnapped, severely beaten and left on a fence to die in October of 1998 in the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming.  Matthew was targeted by his murderers because of his sexual orientation. Shepard came to tell her story and the story of many others who have suffered because of hate.

Shepard has traveled across the nation speaking on her deceased son’s behalf. She talks to her audiences about what they and their communities can do to make this world a place filled with more acceptance and less hatred.

“We think we’ll all take care of ourselves but we can’t, we need to take care of each other as a community,” Shepard said.

Shepard says what she is trying to do is, “educate, educate, educate; bring education, and you bring light and freedom.”

Shepard said she believes that the reason there is so much hate is because people are ignorant. Many don’t realize that there are gay people in their own community. She said 10 percent of all people are gay, and everyone probably knows someone who is gay whether they realize it or not.

“People need to know you, the truth about you. Ignorance only leads to hate which leads to violence,” Shepard said.

Shepard also said in 30 out of 50 states people can be fired for being gay. She also notes that gay people get no benefits because they aren’t married, and yet the states won’t let them get married, so it is a never ending cycle.

“I learned [from the talk] that gay people actually pay more taxes because they can’t get the tax cuts that come from being married,” sophomore Hanno Fenech said. He was also surprised that even though in Iowa gays can legally get married now, in many states it still isn’t this way.

“We are all human beings. The only thing that makes the gay community different is who they love and at the end of the day does it really matter? It’s a denial of civil rights,” Shepard said.

“They are people too, so treat them the same as everyone else,” sophomore Renee Wallace said.

For many, marriage is a traditional ceremony, and that is their reason for opposing gay marriage. They feel that it isn’t the traditional way to have same sex marriages, but Shepard said marriage isn’t what it’s always been. At one time, marriage was an exchange of property.

“A family is a collection of people who love each other. It is wrong to deny marriage or love to anybody. It’s basic civil rights not recognized at a federal level,” Shepard said.

The talk was filled with people from all around Iowa, many from the University of Northern Iowa and Cedar Falls High School. At the end of the talk there was a question answer session. Many took this opportunity tell about how hard it was for them coming out of the closet and that they felt unaccepted with even their own families not supporting them.

“Students feel like they have nobody. So many people have come out in the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at CFHS because we give them a community that they can talk to and who will support them,” junior Oliver Weilein said. He is an active participant in the GSA because, “when I see and hear about people who want to bring harm to gays I am disgusted, and that’s why I am a pretty big advocate of this.”

Judy Shepard’s talk was expected to draw in protesters from an out of state hate group. Local counter protesters showed up to show show support for Shepard’s cause.

Weilein attended the counter protest outside of the Gallagher Bluedorn before the Judy Shepard talk. He and some friends stood on the corner with signs with the rest of the counter protesters. However, the protesters  from Westboro Baptist Church never showed up.

“I’m an ally in the GSA, which is a straight person who will support the BLT (bisexual, lesbian, and transexual) in every way,” Weilein said. “I am in the group because I see stupidity and hatred all around me, and I want to get involved and stop the ignorance and close mindedness.”

Shepard’s speech advocated the same sort of understanding and support. “It’s not as easy as ,’Please pass me the potatoes, I’m gay,’”Shepard said. She said it is a lot harder than that, and that people discriminate because they don’t know any better, but her goal is to inform. “You are who you are, and you love who you love. It’s obvious that it’s not a choice because who would choose this? It’s biology.”

As Weilein puts it, “Don’t judge. Many people are opposed to the idea of gay marriage, and their religion is their excuse, but that’s all it is, an excuse. Love your neighbor as yourself. Read your scripture, and you’ll find love and let live.”

Other students agree.

“I don’t want to see people treating others any less because of sexual orientation, and I don’t want to hear people calling things “that’s so gay,” especially after going to the Judy Shepard talk because I realized how much it hurts people,” Wallace said.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation was established by his parents as a living remembrance of him and a way to help others so that they will not suffer the same hate and ultimate fate. In addition the GBPAC will be featuring “The Laramie Project” on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at 7:30 p.m. It is a dialogue created off the life and death of Matthew Shepard and will be a reflection of civility.

Then on Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m. will be the play of “The Laramie Project.” It was written 10 years later and is about how things have changed in Laramie. All throughout the month the GBPAC will be hosting workshops and talks.

Their website lists these dates.

“I do what I do because the message is bigger than me. I don’t want there to be any more Matthew Shepards, and it’s all up to you,” Shepard said.

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