Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Church School: 10:45 AM
The Meaning of Matthew
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 10, 2010
Asher Brown was 13; he lived in
Raymond hung himself in his dorm room on October 1.
He was the fifth gay youth reported in the press to have taken his own life in a three-week period. The others were Asher and Billy and Seth and Tyler. All were gay. All were young. All had been bullied, harassed, victimized because of their sexual orientation.
They are but the tragic tip of the iceberg, as far as the despair among gay youths in our society is concerned. Gay men and lesbian women are often verbally abused, assaulted both physically and psychologically, and threatened—by peers and strangers and even their own family members. One study of 192 gay men aged 14-21 found that approximately 40% reported being physically or verbally assaulted by a family member when they openly stated their homosexuality. In another survey of about 9000 gay high school students, one-quarter of gay males and about 11% of homosexual girls reported being victimized at least ten times in the past year because of their sexual orientation. The average gay high school student hears anti-gay remarks about 25 times a day. About 28% of gay teenagers drop out of high school; they miss, on average, 40% more days of class than non-gay students. Gay youths are about four times as likely to be threatened with a deadly weapon as are their heterosexual peers. At some point in his life, one in six gay male teens will be beaten badly enough to require medical attention.
This abuse, obviously, has effects: depression; a sense of helplessness; low self-esteem; thoughts of suicide. Gay young people are about four times as likely to attempt suicide as straight young people. Approximately one-third of the suicides among young people 18 and under are among gay youths; that would indicate that somewhere between 1000 and 1500 gay teens, male and female, take their own lives each year.
Asher. Billy. Seth.
But how many hundreds of all-too-similar cases do we not hear about in the press, do we not have the chance to mourn publicly?
That road between adolescence and adulthood is a hard enough one to travel, under any circumstances. We all know that. We’ve all been there. We have to ask how well our society helps young people navigate that troubled sea if it’s true, as statistics indicate, that at least 5000 young people between the ages of 15 to 24—male and female, of all races and nationalities and religions and sexual orientations—take their own lives each year. (Not that America is alone with this problem; the suicide rate for the United States for this age group ranks as the fifteenth highest in the world: higher than most Western industrialized countries, true; about 50% higher than that of Germany or France, for instance; but it’s slightly lower, actually, than that of Canada; it’s only about half that of New Zealand, for some reason; not surprisingly, perhaps, it’s about a third that of Russia.)
We have to do a better job of taking care of all of our young people, certainly. But gay youths do seem to have an especially tough row to hoe.
Why is that? Why the despair and depression and hopelessness that leads to suicide? Why are gay people such ready targets for acts of physical and psychic violence? Why do other young people seem to think that they can bully, harass, spy on, belittle, denigrate, and otherwise make life miserable for their homosexual classmates and peers?
This Tuesday, October 12, will mark the twelfth anniversary of the death
of Matthew Shepard. Five days before, on the night of
It’s been twelve years since Matt Shepard’s death. Twelve years since the death of that gentle and friendly, probably too-trusting young man named Matthew, who was still 60 days shy of his 22nd birthday when he died.
He became many things in the days following his attack: a symbol; a rallying cry; the human face of hate crimes and the bitter fruit of homophobia. His name was attached to a law—the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which finally added “sexual orientation” to the list of crimes covered by federal hate crimes laws. (The Matthew Shepard Act was finally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama late in 2009, more than eight years after it was first introduced.) The Matthew Shepard Foundation was founded in 1999 in order to "Replace Hate with Understanding, Compassion & Acceptance”.
Matthew Shepard became so much more than just the person he was: He became an icon in the fight for tolerance and acceptance, and not just the fully human, fallible, imperfect young man he was, with his own share of problems and issues to face. His death was one of those great moments which changed everything, we’re told, in the way people of different sexual orientations relate to one another.
But did it, really?
Twelve years later, and the suicide rate among gay youths is basically the same as it was in 1998. Young people who are gay are still assaulted and harassed and demeaned because of their sexual orientation. As this recent spate of suicides has shown, life is still difficult for gay teens. Now, they have cyber-bullying to add to the challenges they face. As though “regular” one-on-one bullying wasn’t enough; now, there is the added spectacle of harassment on a viral level. Welcome to the 21st century!
Bit this is not to say that there has not been progress. Only the
most severe pessimist can deny that the cause of gay rights has not made
enormous strides over the past decade. Only a small handful of states now
sanction same sex marriage, true—but twelve years ago, the very idea of gay
marriage (as opposed to the tamer
demand for “domestic partnerships”) was
only on the most radical of agendas. Could you have imagined 12 years ago that
we would be able to celebrate state-sanctioned, fully equal under the law, same
sex marriages in the
No, there has been progress—no doubt about it. There are more gay politicians and celebrities and athletes—all out of the closet, and proud and open about who they are. Gay and lesbian Americans and their allies are winning the culture war in our land. That is a good thing, a very good thing, no doubt about it. It is also a development, tragically, that the death of Matthew Shepard helped to further. In so doing, then, his life most certainly was not in vain.
But it seems to me we kid ourselves, and do none of our gay brothers and lesbian sisters any favors, if we pretend that we have reached the point of a “perfect society”—or even a “just society”-- as far as the rights of people of different sexual orientations are concerned.
The heinous “don’t ask/ don’t tell” policy still survives in the
As we’ve already seen, life for many gay people in
The times, they are a-changing, as far as our relations with our fellow citizens-- gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender-- are concerned. Perhaps the death of Matthew Shepard helped to initiate this latest act in this continuing evolution of American freedom. But the act—the evolving—the great journey to freedom-- continues. We’re not there yet. We are still in the midst of a great cultural shift, and that means there is a long way to go.
Times of transition are difficult, in our personal lives, no less than in the life of society. For every action, there is a reaction; it’s true in physics and it’s true in history and politics, too. Social progress almost inevitably stirs up forces of social reaction, as well. The rise of black rights after the Civil War led to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan and the Jim Crow Laws. Why should we be surprised, then, that victories in the cause of homosexual rights will lead, in some quarters, to increased homophobia, an increased anti-gay backlash, and attempts to turn back the tide and undo these inroads of the “gay agenda”.
It could well be, then, that it is our young people—gay and straight—who are asked to be the front line troops in this culture war. That is an awesomely large burden to place on the fragile shoulders of young souls like these.
Our young people—gay and straight and in-between—need our love and our support now, more than ever. This is, for some of them, for hundreds and thousands of them really, quite literally, a life and death struggle. This is one of the lessons that the life and death of Matthew Shepard taught us. And that Asher Brown and Billy Lucas and Seth Walsh and Tyler Clementi and Raymond Chase have taught us more recently: homophobia kills. As surely as the attacks of McKinney and Henderson took Matt Shepard’s life 12 years ago, so still does anti-gay bashing, physical and (more frequently) psychological, cuts short precious, young lives. That is a terrible tragedy. But it is a tragedy we can do something about. And if we do not try, then we all stand accused.
Our young people are dying because we are not doing enough to speak out for them, and to protect them. We must all, everywhere and anywhere we can, meet anti-gay sentiment in all its forms bravely and directly. We must move beyond toleration toward acceptance and toward celebration, and instill in our young people (in all people) the deep knowledge of the truth that the gift of their sexuality is one of the choicest blessings (and greatest responsibilities) of being human—and that in all its forms, this sexuality is a beauteous and wondrous manifestation of the gift of life—and that all relationships, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual, must be judged on the exact same basis of justice, mutual benefit, and equality.
This is a long and arduous twilight struggle that we face in our battle against homophobia. Because it is not a battle that can be waged with well-trained shock troops. We won’t win it by throwing huge sums of money at the problem. Passing law upon law alone will do little good, in and of itself.
It is, rather, a battle that must be waged in every human heart. It must be waged in every one of our relationships. We must radiate, as far as we are able, love and justice in all of our relations—and especially in our relations with the most vulnerable and most fragile among us, including our young people, including our gay and lesbian and trans-gender young people. Young men and women face burdens enough growing up “different” in this sometimes hard world. Not to stand by them at times like this would be criminal.
We were originally going to talk about the great German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer this Sunday morning. But in the light of the recent deaths of these dear young people, and because it was the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, I decided to take up this topic instead. Of course, the subjects are not mutually exclusive, because, remember, it was Bonhoeffer who said:
“Silence in the face of evil is evil itself; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Homophobia kills, plain and simply.
And so does its silent and sinister cousin, whose name is Indifference.
We can not afford to be indifferent in the face of this national crisis. We need the gifts that all of us, young and old, gay and straight alike, can contribute to the deepening and strengthening of our American freedom and our American soul.