Hate has been a human emotion since the beginning of civilization and will always be there. It’s been the root cause of much violence that is directed towards people and nations on religious, political, racial and ethnic grounds. Nothing can eliminate it. The only thing that can be done is to try to contain it so it doesn’t lead to tragic destruction. Sometimes that has worked, sometimes it hasn’t.
Hate has also led to violence directed at lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals. The LGBT community, since the murder of Matthew Sheppard, has sought to include crimes against lesbians and gays in hate crime legislation pending in the U.S. Congress and here in Maryland. These laws would tack on additional penalties to perpetrators of such crimes. In attempting to achieve this as well as other gay rights advances, one of the key allies in the struggle has been, ironically, hate itself.
When Matthew Sheppard was brutally murdered in Laramie, WY in 1998, the issue of hate was thrust into the world’s collective consciousness. To that point there had been untold numbers of gay bashings in the U.S. (and many since). But none struck a chord like the murder of Matthew Sheppard.
Here was a tiny waif of a guy, a 21 year-old college student, who barely cracked 100 pounds, who was pistol-whipped and beaten senselessly by two young thugs just for being gay. With this highly publicized tragedy hate entered the national dialogue, and law-abiding citizens saw in real and dramatic terms and images the results that destructive, pointless emotions run amok can produce.
It took Matthew Sheppard’s slaughter to add clarity to a nation that was by and large indifferent to such events. Shocked and sensitized by this horrific act, people actually began to notice the tragic consequences directed towards gays and lesbians for being who they were. Helping the cause unwittingly was the psycho Rev. Fred Phelps and his band of hatemongers from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS (www.GodHatesFags.com).
Toting signs proclaiming God’s hatred towards Matthew Sheppard and all faggots in general, Phelps and his cohorts had the indignity of showing up at Matthew’s funeral—in the presence of his grieving family and friends as well as an observing and saddened public—to add more salt to the never-to-be-healed wounds. For those who didn’t see the murder on its own as a reason to pause, this macabre theater staged by Phelps and his fellow extremists in spitting into the grave of a young man who was rendered unrecognizable by his assailants, may have won a few more allies to the LGBT cause.
Not only does this group hate gays, but they also hate America. They have thanked God for the tragedy of September 11, dragged the American flag along the ground, and referred to Laura Bush as a "gay pimp" among other absurdities.
A few hundred miles southeast in a story that was covered by Anne Hull of the Washington Post and recently carried by Nightline, an 18 year-old named Michael Shackelford from Sand Springs, Oklahoma, decided to come out to his mother and sister. Eventually the folks in the rural town just seven miles outside Tulsa, but which culturally seemed like a thousand miles away, got wind of this anomaly in the "Buckle of the Bible Belt." His mother desperately wanted him to change lest they would not be in Heaven together. The preacher in the local church also tried to publicly impart the "truth" to Michael about homosexuality, but to no avail.
Although he was a huge Merle Haggard fan and passionately loved his truck—not the typical gay stereotype—Michael was harassed in school and refused to go to the bathroom all day to avoid being cornered and beaten by his schoolmates. It was a rough go for young Michael. In the town he was known as the "gay kid," "the queer."
Then came the ubiquitous Rev. Phelps to the rescue. Upon learning of this gay kid in Oklahoma from the Washington Post series, he brought his fellow cronies and picketed the church because the pastor failed to cast him from the flock.
Fliers from Phelps began appearing on fax machines all over Sand Springs. "God hates Michael Shackelford" and "God is not mocked! God Hates Fags & Fag Enablers!" According to Dan Morris, producer of the Nightline program, "the faxes were like a bomb being dropped in the middle of town. The community felt under siege. Fear, anger and apprehension blanketed the town. Suddenly the topic no one cared to talk about could not be avoided. What transpired was remarkable and surprising, not least to Michael Shackelford."
What happened is that the town confronted Phelps and the picketers and shouted back for them to go home. Hate was not welcome in Sand Springs. In the reddest part of a red state, the citizens supported one of their own and repelled the outside interference by an extremist group promoting hate. A counter-sign read, "Don’t mess with our homos."
Rev. Phelps may not make it out here on January 27, when a sizable group of local ministers and others sharing his intense bigotry will be demonstrating in Annapolis against same-sex unions. Their goal is to show our state legislators that gays are sinners and deserve no rights.
The kind of hatred manifested by Phelps and his ilk is the perfect ally in trying to convince the public how much more needs to be done to achieve equality for the LGBT community. We can only hope that this extremism and hatred will expose them as the fringe of our society and that the legislators will not be swayed by their assault on fairness and justice.