Friday, August 23, 2013

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman 

This book of poetry had been on my list to read since last October when I heard Michael Cart speak briefly about it, with tears in his eyes, during his Best of 2012: 60 books in 60 minutes book talk at the ISLMA conference. When I saw more recently that a highly-regarded teacher-friend of mine, Gary Anderson, rated it 5 stars on Goodreads, calling it a "masterpiece," I immediately requested it from my local library.
While walking back to my apartment (I live virtually right across from the local branch, which is super convenient), I turned a corner quickly and literally ran into a guy who resembled Matthew Shepard so much that after apologizing I had to do a double-take to see if I was imagining this person. He had blonde-ish hair that fell at an angle across his face, and he was remarkably pale. He smiled shyly, also said "Sorry," and continued on his way.
This encounter alone haunted me, and I felt compelled to sit down as soon as I walked in the door and read all 68 poems in a very short amount of time. 

In short: Everyone should read this book of poetry, which as a collection is called "A Song for Matthew Shepard," the 21-year-old college student who was kidnapped, beaten, and left for dead tied to a fence in rural Montana in October, 1998 all because he was gay. These poems, which are each written from a different point of view (including the moon, the fence, a deer, the killers, the cops, etc.), are incredibly moving, nauseating, and powerful. 
Lesléa Newman, who was scheduled to be the keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week at the same university Shepard attended only a week after his brutal murder, uses a variety of poetic forms and includes an explanation of those forms in the back of the book, in addition to a list of relevant resources. She now works closely with the Matthew Shepard Foundation. For more information, visit their website: 

And please watch and listen to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's song, "Same Love."

If you have some extra time, here are some further, more personal thoughts on the subject.

When I was about 13 or 14, during the early years of AOL, I remember chatting with a guy friend who I'd known since preschool. I don't remember how it came up, but he decided to "come out" to me over an instant message. I remember being surprised but mostly just curious. I asked him who else knew. And I asked him if he thought he'd get made fun of just because he happened to like boys. I don't remember the specifics of the conversation, except for this detail: He told me he didn't like how often he heard the offensive word "fag." I admitted to him that I called my little sister that all the time and had no idea that it was such a bad word; it was just the current trendy insult. I vowed to never utter the word again.
A few years later Matthew Shepard's murder made national headline, being labeled as a hate crime. I thought back to the conversation I had with my friend and how he had felt uncomfortable and scared to let anyone know his "secret identity."

In high school I had a handful of friends who were gay, which I imagine wasn't the easiest label to deal with amidst the homogenous, A&F-wearing suburbanites. Early on in my senior year (2000), one of our fellow classmates, also a member of the glorified football team, made and wore a homophobic t-shirt to school, while pretending to talk in a lisp all day. I believe the culprit was one of the same boys who had walked behind me several times in those same halls pretending to sneeze but saying "a-jew."

(I thought of this when I read the poem on page 51 called "The Frat Boys." A fraternity at Colorado State University sponsored a Wizard of Oz-themed float in their homecoming parade with a scarecrow that had "I'M GAY" spraypainted on it. Matthew Shepard was discovered by a runner, who at first stated he thought Shepard was a scarecrow tied to the fence, on October 7. This appalling act took place a few blocks from the hospital where Matthew laid in a coma on October 10, only two days before he succumbed to his injuries.)
When I was asked to speak on "Character" at the National Honor Society inductions, I mentioned this in my speech. I didn't mention his name because that wasn't the point. The point was to draw attention to the fact that something needed to change at that school because there was no excuse for acting that way toward fellow classmates (or anyone for that matter). 
Afterward, a friend of mine approached me in the auditorium and said how much he liked my speech but that he had to correct me on something; I used the term "sexual preference," and I learned then that the correct term to use was "sexual orientation." This is not something that people choose, they're born this way (cue Lady Gaga). I was embarrassed. Here I was trying to make a statement and stand up for my friends, and I probably came across just as ignorant because of my lack of thoughtful word choice. But I never forgot that moment and have taken it upon myself to correct people whenever I hear someone refer to homosexuality as a choice or a preference. (Lyrics from above video, "Same Love," The right wing conservatives think it's a decision/And you can be cured with some treatment and religion/Man-made rewiring of a predisposition/Playing God/America the brave still fears what we don't know/And God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten/But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago/I don't know

Soon after I gave that speech the homophobic guy (the one who made the t-shirt) and I happened to be at the same party one night. Even though I had refrained from mentioning him by name, I only called out his actions, he was beyond pissed. More than a decade later I don't recall exactly what he screamed at me through gritted teeth, but I can picture his reddening face as he grabbed a nearby bar stool, flipped it over, and started swinging at me in a drunken rage. He didn't succeed in hitting me, and it was over almost as soon as it started, thanks to intervening bystanders.

Something had to be done. My guidance counselor at the time mentioned that he and a few other staff members and concerned students were looking into starting a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and asked if I'd want to help. I eagerly agreed. There wasn't a lot of time before I graduated to make much of a difference, and although the group survived under various aliases over the years, I found out today that it apparently was never officially recognized by the school nor the district. The good news: This is the first year, under a more general all-encompassing alias, that it is finally--12 years later--being granted official club status. It took entirely too long in my opinion, however I'm still proud to have been part of the initial group that helped pave the way for some reality bubble-bursting. Also, I really like the direction its evolved, which is "celebrating the human experience and issues of acceptance for all members of the community." Perfect.

Moving on to college... 

I arrived back home via Amtrak after my first year as a student at New York University (where, by the way, being a gay guy was the norm) to find my dad and my best friend, Abbi, waiting for me at Union Station. When Abbi and I were alone, she confided that while she was waiting with my dad he asked her, "Is Lyse a lesbian?" She laughed and replied, "No...she's not a lesbian. What made you think that?" His only reasoning, or at least the only reason he told Abbi, was that I didn't have a boyfriend in high school. The natural assumption being: she must like girls then. Abbi told him that was a ridiculous conclusion, that hardly any of our close friends had boyfriends in high school. 
Then he said something to her that meant the world to me: "...because I wouldn't care if she was [a lesbian]. I just want her to be happy." If my dad, who is notorious for belting "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof at any given moment and who views the world through a formulaic lens, can be so unconditional with his love, anyone can muster the same.

When I was 28...

I went on a roadtrip with my friend, Dana, and we ended up at a line-dancing saloon in Nashville on our first night. Just in time for a hula-hoop contest. I won second place. When I returned to our table, some men standing nearby congratulated me. I smiled and thanked them. One of those men, a few minutes later, started laughing with his buddy and called out: "HOMO!" Horrified, I turned to face them to make sure I'd heard right, and sure enough they were watching the one guy on the floor, out of a sea of hip-twisting females, doing a swell job of keeping his hoop a-twirlin'. Again, the man beside me called out something at the boy on the dance floor using the word "homo" all the while cracking up with his friend.
I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Excuse me. Can you please stop yelling the word 'homo'?"
He looked at me, startled. "What makes you think it's appropriate to use that kind of language directed towards another human being?" I continued.
He genuinely seemed like he had no idea that yelling "homo" at someone was an offensive act. "Well he's obviously a homo because men shouldn't be that good at hula-hooping," he explained. 
"Ok, first of all, can you please stop using that word?" I went on to explain to him that it doesn't matter whether he's gay or not, it's inappropriate to yell that word because not only might you offend him, you never know who you're offending within earshot. He glanced at Dana, probably assuming that she and I were "homos" as well, but then surprised me by sincerely apologizing, saying he wouldn't do that again. 

If you haven't yet read October Mourning, I encourage you to check out a copy from your local library. Share it with friends and family. And if you're a teacher, recommend it to students.
To borrow Gary's description: It's masterful.

I will leave you with some strung together pieces of the poet's Afterword:

"...the phrase I can't imagine repeated itself over and over in my mind. So many people I'd spoken to in the last twenty-four hours had said the same thing: I can't imagine. And yet we must imagine, because the truth is, what happened to Matthew Shepard and his family could happen to any one of us...I have tried my hardest to imagine the last hours of Matthew Shepard's life before he lost consciousness. It is impossible to fathom the raw fear he surely felt as he begged for his life. As a poet, I know it's part of my job to use my imagination. It's part of my job as a human being, too. Because only if each of us imagines that what happened to Matthew Shepard could happen to any one of us will we be motivated to do something. And something must be done...To quote John Lennon: Imagine." 

And remember...

(patch purchased at the Mynabirds merch booth at Empty Bottle, October, 2012)

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