In 1998, 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered because he was gay. This hate crime brought new awareness of LGBTQ rights to Americans, and it has stuck in the mind of author Lesléa Newman, the keynote speaker for the University of Wyoming's Gay Awareness Week when all of this happened.
Lesléa has written more than 60 books, many of them with LGBTQ themes, like the groundbreaking children’s book “Heather Has Two Mommies.” She wanted to write a book to honor Matthew’s legacy and also to educate young people who might not know who he was. This led her to writing “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.” While it’s a book of poetry, it details what happened and is footnoted with information. MTV Act spoke with Lesléa to learn more about what she hopes the book will accomplish and how people can join her in honoring Matthew’s legacy.
Photo: Lesléa's book of poetry about Matthew. (Lesléa Newman)
ACT: You were the keynote speaker for the University of Wyoming's Gay Awareness Week when Matthew Shepard died. So even though you didn't know him, did this make his story extra personal to you?
LESLÉA: Oh, absolutely. I was invited to speak for Gay Awareness Week a few months before. Several days before I was supposed to go, Jim Osborn, who was the head of their LGBTQ group, called me to tell me what had happened. He said, “Do you still plan on coming?” I said, “Absolutely, unless you’re cancelling Gay Awareness Week.” So I went out there and I met some of Matthew Shepard’s friends. I met some of his teachers. It became very personal to me. He was part of the group that was planning my visit, so I would have met him had he not been murdered. When I gave my talk, all the students from the LGBTQ group were in the front row, and there was one empty seat. I kept looking at that empty seat, thinking, That’s Matt’s seat. He should be sitting there.
That night I made a commitment that I would do whatever I could to keep his name alive. I wrote an essay called "Imagine" on the plane flying home on October 13, 1998, which I then published in about 20 regional LGBTQ newspapers across the country. Since 1998, I have started all my talks about LGBTQ rights by reading this short tribute to Matthew Shepard, which is also included in the back of “October Mourning.”
ACT: After 10 years, you began writing poetry to explore and better understand what happened to Matthew. Why did you pick poetry as opposed to other forms of writing?
LESLÉA: Because I’m a poet. [laughs] But also because it’s been written about a lot. It’s been documented by many newspapers, including the New York Times. Judy Shepard [Matthew’s mother] has written a memoir; Beth Loffreda has written a creative nonfiction book. I thought, What can I add to this story? What I kept thinking about was, I wish I knew what happened at that fence [where Matthew was tied up and left to die]. I wish there was somebody there who witnessed it. Then, as a poet, I thought, Wait — there was someone there. The fence was there. The stars were there, and the moon was there. Animals were there. And that’s how it began for me.
ACT: What do you want readers to take away from your book? If people want to learn more after they've finished reading, where can they go?
LESLÉA: I would like readers to be inspired to do something to make the world a safer place and end this kind of hatred. In the back of the book there’s a resource section, and the two places that would be the most beneficial are MatthewShepard.org and MatthewsPlace.org.
Photo: Matthew Shepard (outfrontonline.com)
ACT: How can people stand up for LGBTQ rights? What can they do if they want to get involved with the Matthew Shepard Foundation?
LESLÉA: There are many things people can do. I think the most important thing people can do is to reach out to someone from the LGBTQ community, especially if they sense that person is hurting. I think about all the suicides that could possibly be prevented if someone extended the hand of kindness. You never know what impact one small act of kindness can have on a person. Sometimes you can save a life.
Another thing that’s important — and this can be a little scary: If you hear someone say, “That’s so gay” in a derogatory way, call them out on it. Join the Gay Straight Alliance at your school if there is one, or, if you’re brave, start one. You can wear a button on your backpack that says, “I’m straight but not narrow.” You can write letters to the newspaper, if your school has a newspaper, or a community newspaper, to talk about how you feel about LGBTQ rights. You can call or write to your state rep. We had this wonderful thing happen with the Supreme Court knocking down DOMA and Proposition 8, so you can write a letter to your paper about that. There are a lot of people who are happy about it, and there are some people who are unhappy, so it’s important to show there are a lot of people who think this is a wonderful thing.
For the Matthew Shepard Foundation, just visit the website. Obviously you can donate money, so they can continue the work that they do. Judy Shepard can be brought to your community to give a talk. She’s very, very inspiring. And there are other things on their website, so I would recommend going to their website and poking around, see what you can do. I’m an official member of the Matthew Shepard Speaker’s Bureau, and it’s so important for him to have not died in vain. He was interested in international social justice, so I feel it’s important to make a difference in his name.