In the fall of 1998 I was in the fight of my life. I knew I was gay. I’d known I was gay for years. Everything inside me was screaming that it was the truth — that it was my truth. But, I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. I had tried. I stood in front of my bathroom mirror on more than one occasion and looked myself in the eyes and tried to say those two, tiny but immeasurably powerful words, “I’m gay.”
I grew up in church and believed what I’d been told, homosexuality is a sin. How could I not believe it? It was right there in black and white in the Bible sitting on my nightstand next to my bed and now, in October of 1998, in the Bible I kept sitting on my desk in the back room of the formal wear store I managed. So, I wrapped myself in what I’d been told was the truth and tried desperately to silence the screaming inside me. It was pointless. Nothing made it stop and something I heard on the radio in that same backroom over five days that October only made the screaming louder.
My store was located on the backside of an old mall. It was one of the few stores left in the mall which had long since been overtaken by the bigger, newer malls in the area. I was brought in to manage the store through the end of the year when it would close and I would be transferred to another store nearby. I was the only employee. The area manager would not allow me to hire any help, so I worked from 10am to 7pm Monday through Saturday and he worked on Sundays so that I would have one day off. It was a lonely job in a lonely store on the lonely side of a mall where no one shopped. I had a lot of time to think.
There was a small radio sitting on my desk in the backroom. Because the store was inside the mall, the radio picked up only one station. It was the Christian talk radio station in Dallas. I kept the radio on all the time mostly to break the silence. When I came into the store on October 8, 1998, I turned the radio on as usual and went about the business of getting the store open. That morning I heard a report on the news about a young man in Laramie, Wyoming who’d been brutally attacked, tied to a fence and left for dead. He was in the hospital in critical condition and doctors were not confident he would survive his injuries. At the time I didn’t think much more about it than that it was a terrible crime and I sat at my desk and prayed for the young man, Matthew Shepard, for his family, and for justice to be done. As more details surrounding the attack were revealed, the battle inside me became more pitched than ever.
By the time I was going through my closing procedures that night, what started out as a tragic report during the hourly news breaks had become fodder for callers on the talk shows which played throughout the day. Word had come that Matthew Shepard was gay and that the attack might have been motivated by hate. Over the next three days I listened intently as caller after caller decried the attack but then made sure that the hosts knew they believed homosexuality was a sin and that if Matthew Shepard died he would be doomed to an eternity in hell. There were even a few callers who speculated that, just perhaps, he’d brought the attack on himself by propositioning his attackers who were then forced to “defend” themselves. I was being forced back in front of the mirror.
I listened again on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The discussion began to turn toward whether or not there should be laws governing hate crimes, a term I’d not heard prior to that. Time and time again I heard the words, “All crime is motivated by hate. There should not be special punishments because someone is gay.” I sat at my desk listening all day long, stopping only if someone happened to accidentally wander into my store. From time to time I would reach for the Bible sitting on my desk and would open it and read the oft-quoted passages in Leviticus and Romans and I would listen to the callers and the hosts. I bowed my head and prayed again, only those prayers were not for Matthew Shepard or his family, they were for me. I prayed the prayer I’d been praying since I was 19 years old, “God, I’m not asking you to make me straight. I don’t care about that. Just please make me not be gay anymore.” As usual, there was no answer. The only sound in the room were the voices on the radio.
I purposely avoided the radio or television news on Sunday. I was in information overload and I needed at least a brief break from the events unfolding in Wyoming and Colorado and my own thoughts. Monday morning, October 12, 1998, I opened my store and turned on the radio. Sometime in the very early hours of that morning, Matthew Shepard died surrounded by his family and the throng of people who’d gathered outside the hospital. The doctors and nurses had fought valiantly to save his life, but his injuries were too severe. Suddenly, I realized how very much alone I was. That lonely store that no one ever visited seemed emptier than ever and it was all I could do to keep from getting up and running out. I didn’t know where I wanted to be, but I didn’t want to be there with that radio anymore.
I turned the radio off and walked to the front of the store. I stepped out into the mall and looked to my left toward the fountain and the few other stores in that area. There was no one around but me. No customers, no other store managers or employees. I was alone and I felt it. A friend once described me as someone who “feels the full brunt of every emotion.” That was certainly the case on October 12, 1998. I was lonely and scared and sad and angry and I didn’t have a clue what to do with any of those feelings. I went back to my desk and opened my Bible again, only this time I did not open it to Leviticus or Romans. This time I opened it to Psalm 121.
“I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is thy keeper: he is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even forever more.” ~Psalm 121 (KJV)
I tried to pray again, but the words wouldn’t come. There were none left. I didn’t know what to ask anymore. If Matthew Shepard could be brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming because he was gay then what could happen to me in my little hometown in East Texas where attitudes toward homosexuals weren’t much different? Suddenly, I wasn’t only faced with my sexuality, I was also faced with my own mortality. I quit my job at the end of that week. I couldn’t listen to the radio anymore and I couldn’t be alone.
I was finally able to say the words out loud a few days later. I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror for what seemed like hours repeating them in my head over and over again. Eventually, I said it, “I’m gay.” Those two little words set me on a path (an admittedly long path) toward self-acceptance and total honesty. A year later I came out to my family. Over the last fifteen years I’ve become more and more comfortable with who I am. Although some days were easier than others, the vestiges of those days of fear, loneliness, guilt and shame have fallen away one by one.
Matthew Shepard’s death served as a turning point for many people. For me, those five days in October of 1998 opened the door to the truth. Matthew Shepard’s death forced me to look at myself and speak to myself, and eventually to my family and friends honestly. But, in complete truthfulness, if giving that up could somehow bring him back to his family and the other people who loved him, I would do it in a heartbeat because there is nothing good about what happened. That’s why it is so important that we never forget and that we never let the world forget Matthew Shepard.
To read more about Matthew Shepard and the work of The Matthew Shepard Foundation, click here.