The murder of Matthew Shepard had a profound influence on the lives of countless LGBTQA Americans, but in Laramie, Wyoming, his memory, and activism that resulted from his death have changed lives forever. Jessica Fahlsing, an LGBT student from Wyoming, wrote a magnificent tribute to the way that Shepherd’s life brought together a community in Laramie and improved the lives of minorities in Wyoming. She shared it with BuzzFeed on Shepherd’s birthday. He would have been 41 years old.
Fahlsing recounts her experience taking part in the protests that erupted after Senator Mike Enzi told a group of students at Greybull High School that gay people must take some of the blame for the discrimination they face, in the state where Shepherd had been brutally beaten and left to die on a rustic fence.
When a student asked Enzi about protecting LGBT people, he replied:
“What we need is a little civility between people,” Enzi answered. “We always say that in Wyoming you can be just about anything you want to be, as long as you don’t push it in somebody’s face. I know a guy who wears a tutu and goes to bars on Friday night and is always surprised that he gets in fights. Well, he kind of asks for it a little bit.”
Tutu Protests And Parties Break Out In Wyoming Over Senator's Remark https://t.co/GmgyHmDKZi
— NPR (@NPR) April 28, 2017
The Senator later apologized for his “poor choice of words,” but those words led to protest parties, with a hashtag of #LiveandLetTutu for participants to share their photos as they wore tutus in Wyoming and elsewhere. While the photos are humorous and seem light-hearted, the message is really that violence and hate crimes against minorities shouldn’t be rationalized by saying, “They asked for it” any more than one would do so for victims of sexual assault. It’s blaming the victim and encouraging a climate of discrimination and violence.
Jessica Fahlsing noted that the rationale the Senator made to excuse discrimination was part of the anti-gay sentiment that led to Shepherd’s death.
Laramie does not like to claim responsibility for Matthew’s death. It was not Wyoming’s culture of anti-gay sentiment that killed him; rather, he was asking for it. He was too blatantly gay with the wrong people — one of his murderers tried to use the “gay panic” defense.
Pictures of Fahlsing and friends wearing a tutu at a bar went viral, though she recounted how uncomfortable it made her feel at the time. They brought attention and sent a loud message that people shouldn’t face the fear of being beaten or killed because they are recognized as being an LGBTQA person.
Senator Enzi’s comment seemed to be directed at a well-known Wyoming resident named Sissy Goodwin, a retired professor, and well-known crossdresser. In support of Goodwin, a bar in Goodwin’s hometown offered free drinks to patrons who arrived wearing a tutu.
Senator Enzi denied the comment was directed at Goodwin and apologized to him personally.
“He offered an apology and I have no doubt to believe it was genuine,” Goodwin said. “I think we had a respectful dialogue. If anything comes out of this, we both agree that it’s opening a discussion and illuminating the issues to the benefit of everyone concerned.”
The conversations that came about from the protests seem to have improved the climate for LGBT residents in Wyoming, building on the activism that followed Matthew Shepherd’s tragic death. His story has led to Laramie’s first-ever pride celebration — Laramie PrideFest, although there is a running narrative by some residents to blame Shepherd’s death on drugs and not his orientation. Regardless, his life changed others for the better and helped them to feel a little more free to be who they are without having to face the fear of violence as a consequence. The state with a motto of “Live and Let Live,” is a little closer to meaning it, though there is a very long way to go.
“I can’t help but think about how my own story could have easily reflected Matthew’s,” said Jessica Fahlsing. “But all of the work done in his name has meant that I can now, at least in Laramie, live fairly openly as I love whom I love. I am still afraid sometimes, but as a queer kid from Wyoming, Matthew has meant everything to me.”
Featured image: Screenshot via Twitter
— Siobhan Muir (@SiobhanMuir) April 28, 2017