Friday, September 4, 2009

Is Matthew All There Is?

Thanks to the publication of The Meaning of Matthew, Judy Shepard's new book on her son's life, the hate crimes legislation resulting from the horrible scene of Matthew Shepard's death is back in the news. But as his mother's book discloses, Matthew Shepard wasn't an angelic figure in life even though he has turned into martyr in death.

Gabriel Arana's piece on this subject is something I find a little problematic. He seems to blame Judy Shepard because she "ultimately falls back on eulogistic platitudes." But I find that criticism distasteful. Judy Shepard has gone through something I dearly hope no parent ever has to go through -- not only the death of a child, but the homicide of her child. If anything, I admire her strength to be critical of her son's memory at all.

The other point I find problematic is here:
The Matthew Shepard Act is currently under consideration in the House after being stymied under George W. Bush, who threatened to veto it. If it passes, gay-rights groups can declare a victory. But what will have been vanquished? Even his mother acknowledges that "a dyed-in-the-wool and determined bigot isn't about to log onto the Internet to check state or federal statutes before bashing someone's head in."

What hate-crime laws do provide are stricter sentencing guidelines, feeding a criminal-justice system that has imprisoned more than 1 percent of the U.S. population and unfairly targets minorities. The courts imprison blacks at six times the rate of whites, and Hispanics, at more than double the rate of whites; the rate of black incarceration under President George W. Bush was higher than it was in South Africa during apartheid. If the face of anti-gay violence were a racial or ethnic minority, would we still be pushing for hate-crimes legislation that props up the criminal-justice system?

As Jos Truitt at points out, activists' energy would be better spent on empowering victims and combating the homophobia that motivates hate crimes. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign, which are spearheading the effort to get the Matthew Shepard Act passed, should focus instead on education programs and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Harsher murder sentences can't bring back the dead, but nondiscrimination laws and education programs can help LGBT Americans who are still living. It's hard to see how Shepard's memory is "honored" by a legalistic redefinition of federal sentencing guidelines or how this accomplishes anything concrete for gay rights.

I understand the general idea that it's unlikely hate crimes legislation would be enforced in any kind of systematic way if passed, but I do think that by passing such legislation, Congress is making a statement that killing someone because they are gay, lesbian, queer, or transgender is unacceptable. Furthermore, Arana seems to suggest that when it comes to LGBT rights, we must choose one thing and work on that. There's plenty of political advocacy to go around. Sure, some legislation my make a greater impact than others, but when it comes to figting for LGBT rights, it seems insulting that we're asking activists to choose one thing for which they can fight.

Arana's other -- and perhaps bigger -- point is one to which I'm more sympathetic:
Over 1,400 members of the LGBT community are victims of a hate crime every year, which includes violent attacks as well as harassment. Why, then, is Shepard the "face" of gay rights? The implication is that all the other candidates weren't quite right: not urban New Yorkers dying of AIDS in the 1980s, not inner-city black adolescents whose parents kicked them out of the house, not leather daddies marching on Washington. The pictures of other gays, lesbians, and transgender people did not prove sufficiently salable to make it onto rally placards.
By making Matthew Shepard, a young white man who otherwise comes from a place of a certain kind of privelidge, we sometimes imply that others who suffer from violence and harrassment somehow don't count. I understand that by elevating Matthew Shepard's story we can be ignoring the stories of others. Still, many people understand why violence against LGBT people is problematic because of Matthew Shepard. It's something they might not otherwise think about. I don't think that's bad -- but we should use Shepard's story to tell the stories of others.

Cross posted.

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