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Welcome home, Matthew Shepard

Safely at rest after 20 years

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Matthew Shepard, gay news, Washington Blade

Matthew Shepard Thanksgiving and Celebration at the National Cathedral. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The woman biking by thought he was a scarecrow. Lashed to a buck fence outside of Laramie, Wyo., practically crucified, Matthew Shepard was robbed, pistol whipped and left for dead. Clean lines ran down his face where his tears had washed the blood away. Matthew died six days later. That was 20 years ago.

Last Friday morning, the bells of the National Cathedral slowly tolled, and Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, walked Matthew Shepard’s ashes down the nave as a single flute played “Morning Has Broken.” Reaching the altar, he sat Matthew’s ashes down, smoothed out the pall, and gave it a gentle pat — a reassuring touch of comfort, rest, finality — one last thing he could do for him. It was one of the sweetest, saddest things I have ever witnessed.

Some have called Matthew Shepard’s death and the outrage it activated a sort of second Stonewall for LGBT Americans. And while the reasons for that could be seen as a bit troubling to some — Matthew was blonde, white, from a middle-class background, others had suffered as badly with no national media attention — of course none of this was really Matthew’s fault. And all things being equal, I’m sure he’d rather be with us, living his life. Truthfully, Matthew was no Rosa Parks. When mythic, historic status is reached, the real fabric of who a person was can often get lost. Talking to people that actually knew him, I learned that he smoked too much, or at least his mother thought so. He ran up a credit card; he skipped class. But he was also thought of as “gentle,” “shy, but never rude,” And I was told, “we all called him Matt.”

The day before his service at the Cathedral, across town at the Smithsonian, several of Matt’s personal items were being donated by his family. His sandals, a Superman cape from his childhood, a wedding ring Matt bought, in hopes that one day he’d find the one. Matt and I were the same age then. And in many ways, were at the same place in our lives. And like so many gay men in the late ‘90s, we took refuge in ragtag campus gay groups, driving miles to gay bars in other cities. Living out and proud and exploring freely for the first time what our identities could really mean. Laramie was really Anytown, USA, and Dennis and Judy, seeing them there mourning their son, were in many ways any American mom, any dad.

Now Matt is at home, in our National Cathedral, occupying the highest spot in Washington, D.C. It’s more than simply a commanding presence in the city’s skyline, a marker in stone, a marker of history, a place of national mourning, celebration. Matthew’s coming here adds to all that, while also bringing a narrative of security, safety, love and tenderness.

In the south balcony before the service, people turned and greeted one another. Sitting behind me were Joel and Ethan. They were married in the Cathedral just last year. Ethan seemed to sum up what we were all feeling. The service was more like “a coming home” — welcoming Matt with joy to a safe place. Gesturing around him, Ethan went on to say that the “beautiful stone Cathedral represents not only a physical safety, but a spiritual one.” The words safe, or safety, were probably uttered more than two dozen times by the people I spoke with. And in truth, Matt’s parents held on to his ashes for so long out of concern that in any final resting place, Matt would need to be safe. All this time they worried that any gravesite might be vandalized. The Cathedral gave them peace at last. And with hate crimes currently on the rise in America, let the monument that occupies the highest point in the city serve as a constant reminder that higher ideals will eventually win out.

Before Friday’s service, I visited the Cathedral. Dozens of tours, mostly school groups, were flowing through. There I managed to speak with a group of high school students visiting from rural southern Illinois just as they started their tour.

“Do you know who Matthew Shepard is?”

“No. . .sorry,” some responded.

I really can’t fault them. I probably would have got the same answer if I asked who Jimmy Carter was. Stopping another group as they were leaving, this time from St. John’s, Ind., I asked the same question. Four teenage girls stopped and turned to me.

“Oh yeah, we just learned about him.”

I followed up with what they thought of him being interred in the Cathedral; they shifted awkwardly in their matching white shoes, looking at each other, one answered, “well we go to a conservative Christian school back home. . .and. . .” Though she struggled to find her words I was fairly sure what she was trying to tell me. But at least now they’ve heard a different perspective on faith, love and acceptance. Perhaps they gave it some thought on the bus ride home.

Last Friday’s service was more than just a somber or subdued Episcopal ritual. At times, it had the hallmarks of a political rally, and it was in part also a homecoming, and not just for Matt. Gene Robinson began the service, already holding back tears, by speaking directly to all the LGBT congregants, of whatever faith, that had been hurt by their religious communities, “I want to welcome you back.”  He closed his eulogy, saying “there are three things I’d say to Matt: ‘Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. And Matt, welcome home.’ Amen.”

Some 2,000 congregants rose to their feet in sustained applause.

Indeed. Welcome home, Matt.

 

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer who contributes regularly to the Blade.

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‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal serves as a guide for enacting equality legislation

Equality Act supporters should take cues from Senate moderates

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Equality legislation is close to passing in Congress, but close isn’t good enough. “Close” won’t change anything for the LGBTQ Americans who face discrimination every day. Senate Democrats and Republicans must make a push to negotiate. With a reach on both sides to find common ground, we can move equality legislation from “close” to “done deal.”

Some Democrats are waiting for the filibuster to end—despite clear evidence that they lack the votes to end it. Some Republicans are practicing a tried-and-true brand of obstructionism. To break this deadlock, we should look to the successful, bipartisan repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) as a guide.

The DADT repeal is the single reference point for LGBTQ advocates for overcoming the Senate filibuster. Other victories have been in the courts; notably, the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision that made gay marriage legal nationwide.

Before Obergefell, advocates had success in the state legislatures. I worked on campaigns for the freedom to marry in Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York and elsewhere, finding common ground between Democrats and Republicans who thought it was impossible to negotiate on marriage. Eventually, enough people from both parties came together to pass marriage laws in a majority of states.

Working together at the state level is one thing. Congress is another.

Despite Democrats’ control of the White House, Senate and House, negotiations are failing at the federal level. So, we lets look to ancient history—the 2010 repeal of DADT—for guidance on reaching 60 votes in the Senate.

The most important lesson from the DADT repeal is that Senate moderates must champion the cause and lead negotiations. The more partisan figures on both sides need to step back. Overcoming the filibuster is a job for moderates, not ideologues.

As it happens, the hero of the DADT repeal is still a senator and can help. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine led the negotiations on DADT repeal.

Senator Collins supports the Equality Act in principle and even sponsored a version of the bill in past. However, the current version is too extreme for Sen. Collins, as a result, she has withdrawn as a co-sponsor. The current bill has also foundered with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, another important figure in the repeal of DADT.

The fact that moderate, pro-LGBTQ senators are unable to back the current version of the Equality Act should send a clear message to Democrats that we need to make reasonable changes to the bill. So far, the message is being ignored.

On the Democratic side, independent Sen. Joe Lieberman was essential to the repeal of DADT. There certainly were passionate, liberal Democrats who could have asserted themselves during the debate. But then, the bill would have taken longer to pass, or even might have failed.

The lesson is clear. Listen to the moderates. Let them lead this charge.

Another important lesson from the repeal of DADT is to be flexible in the legislative strategy. DADT repeal was originally an amendment to a large defense authorization bill. Rather than give up, Collins and Lieberman fought and saved DADT repeal from defeat by pulling out key provisions they knew could pass on their own and making them a standalone measure. Repeal passed with bipartisan support.

The current version of the Equality Act tries to do too much. That’s why it can’t win support from moderate Republicans who have legitimate concerns the bill might suppress free speech or shut down religious charities.  

Over 60 senators can agree on the basic premise of the Equality Act. They would gladly vote to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ Americans in employment, housing, and public accommodations, so long as the law didn’t intrude on the First Amendment.

If the far left believes that our country has too much religious liberty, they can deal with that in future legislation. But so long as we have a filibuster—and, there’s no indication it will end any time soon—the Equality Act needs to reflect our society’s current views on religious liberty.  

The DADT repeal passed with 65 votes in the Senate, overcoming the filibuster. Let’s replicate that victory by using the same playbook. Moderates: Take the lead.

Tyler Deaton is the senior advisor to the American Unity Fund, a conservative nonprofit organization working to advance LGBTQ freedom and religious freedom

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LGBTQ people are being hunted down in Afghanistan

Homosexuality punishable by death under Taliban Sharia law interpretation

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Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

Kabul was known as one of the few “liberal” cities in Afghanistan. The word liberal is in quotation marks, and inflected, because it is liberal compared to the rest of the country. Now that the Taliban has taken over, most people who expressed themselves differently and openly are forced to adhere to Sharia law, completely change their ways, hide their identity, or be killed.

The U.S. State Department reported in 2020 that even before the Taliban took power in August, LGBTQ people in Afghanistan faced “discrimination, assault and rape” and “homosexuality was widely seen as taboo and indecent.” Laws against lesbian, gay and transgender people made their existence illegal and punishable by up to two years in jail. Those laws were not always enforced, but they did leave LGBTQ people at risk of extortion and abuse by authorities, as reported by the U.K. government.

Even with the discrimination and abuse, LGBTQ people still had a sliver of space in society. Nemat Sadat, an LGBTQ Afghan author living in the United States said that gay, lesbian and transgender people helped the country’s cultural life develop since the Taliban’s last rule 20 years ago. But, most of these people built their lives quietly.

Now with the Taliban regime, their sliver of space in society is gone, there is no room to live quietly as an openly LGBTQ person. Under the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law, homosexuality is punished by death.

In an interview with Reuters, Waheedullah Hashimi, a top decision maker for the Taliban said, “there will be no democratic system at all because it does not have a base in our country,” and continued to say, “what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan is clear. It is sharia law and that is it.”

One source spoke to a 20-year-old university student who is lesbian in Afghanistan. Her family accepted her as a lesbian, but now the new Taliban leadership has put the lives of all of her family at risk. There is a new surge of violence against any lesbian, gay and transgender people. This includes anyone speculated of being lesbian, gay, or trans, and those who support them.

This young lesbian woman has gone into hiding. She is part of hundreds of LGBTQ people in Afghanistan who are pleading with advocates and organizations outside Afghanistan for help to escape the Taliban tyranny.

Nemat Sadat shares stories of lesbian, gay and trans people in hiding. He shared a story of a gay man who watched from his hiding place in the ceiling as Taliban fighters beat the friend who refused to disclose his location.  

LGBTQ people in Afghanistan fear the risk of being arrested, beaten and killed. The Taliban made it clear that it is enforcing its strict religious laws against Afghanistan’s LGBTQ citizens. In an interview with Germany’s Bild newspaper, one Taliban judge said there were only two punishments for homosexuality: “stoning or being crushed under a wall.”

LGBTQ people in Afghanistan are reporting that their friends, partners and members of their community are being attacked and raped. They also stated that Islamic fundamentalists and riotous groups are encouraged by the new tyranny and are on the hunt for LGBTQ people.

Another source shared that a gay man was targeted for his sexuality and then raped by his male attackers. That is a terrible paradox. He was raped by his male attackers, who criminalizing him for having same sex relations.

LGBTQ people are in hiding, desperately trying to get out of the country, and trying to erase any proof of their queer identity.

They feel abandoned by the international LGBTQ community. The Taliban is proving that the Western nations have normalized relations to their government. The Taliban and their supporters see this a proof of their victory. This leaves LGBTQ people defeated and fearing torture and death.

The U.S. government and other Western countries evacuated many people out of Afghanistan, including journalists, women’s rights activists and those who worked with foreigners. But, LGBTQ activists said that nothing has been done for them. A source says about her situation, “we will definitely be killed. We are asking to be evacuated immediately from Afghanistan.” To date, no safe route has been found.

Even underground measures to help LGBTQ people are challenging and near impossible. The Rainbow Railroad is a non-governmental organization helping LGBTQ people around the world escape persecution. Executive Director Kimahli Powell said evacuating LGBTQ people from Afghanistan is especially hard as they are often alone, in hiding, and unable to contact each other. If routes to get them out is nearly impossible, that still means those routes are somewhat possible. As difficult as it may be, we must find pathways to save these people and get them out.

The Taliban regime has established itself, knowing with certainty that the world will stand aside, albeit condemning and protesting, but not intervening. This is empowering jihadists across the world, especially in the Middle East. The Taliban has many allies and admirers, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas. 

The leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, travelled from Palestinian territories to meet with Taliban leaders in Qatar. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad has a history of ties to the Taliban, even with radicals joining each other’s organizations. Very public statements of congratulations were made between leaders of the Taliban, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and all with full Iranian support.

The increase in brazen forcefulness of these groups reaches beyond Afghanistan, and spreads to the lands dominated by other similar groups. This causes an escalation of the threats to anyone who opposes Sharia law or who lives differently than what Sharia law allows. LGBTQ people in these lands are in peril. 

If we do not help LGBTQ people in Afghanistan, the lives of LGBTQ people under other similar tyrannies face increased uncertainty and danger.

Since posting this video, I have been receiving direct messages from LGBTQ people in hiding in Afghanistan, and those who are seeking to be evacuated. They all share harrowing experiences of being attacked, raped, and threatened by Taliban, Islamic State and bullying groups.

Yuval David is an innovative actor, host and filmmaker with a creative mantra to entertain, uplift and inspire. He is a captivating performer and compelling storyteller who uses his platform for sharing narratives that affect social change, specifically on behalf of highly respected U.S. and international organizations that raise awareness for the marginalized and under-represented, inspired by his LGBTQ+ and Jewish identity, and his Israeli-American roots.

He can be reached through social media

YouTube.com/YuvalDavid

Instagram.com/Yuval_David_

Facebook.com/YuvalDavid

Twitter.com/YuvalDavid

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Proposed zoning code changes will harm Rehoboth

Public hearing to take place on Oct. 15

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Double L, Diego's Hideaway, Fourth, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

As a former city commissioner for nine of the past 15 years, I have seen a lot of changes in the laws and decisions governing the city of Rehoboth Beach. Like most things in life, some have been good and some have been not so good. The ones that have been good for the city plan for the future. The ones that have been bad for the city try to hold on to the past. The city of Rehoboth Beach has been a magnet for tourists for a long time and that has not changed, nor can it be changed. Trying to stifle our business community will not decrease the numbers that come to our city but will only frustrate our residents and visitors by putting into place ordinances that will promote the construction of buildings that lack functional architectural creativity. Worse, discouraging business innovation will drive businesses to Route 1, resulting in vacant storefronts along our commercial streets that will ultimately increase costs to residents in terms of higher taxes, provision of basic services, and increased utility fees. 

On Oct. 15, a public hearing will be held regarding patchwork changes to the zoning code. The proposed changes have been put forth as “clarifications”. They are NOT clarifications but changes that will change the downtown commercial districts for generations to come. And not in a good way. 

This may seem like an over-reaction but truly it is not. Not to over-simplify, but the basic zoning code that applies to commercial buildings allows for construction of a building from lot line to lot line with a maximum height of 42 feet. The proposed changes/clarifications would count interior courtyards and elevator shafts. These changes do not change the bulk of a building but could very well disincentivize desired architectural enhancements, such as balconies and courtyards. In this day and age of COVID, open space should be promoted not penalized. Why would we stifle architects with ideas for buildings that embrace creative use of a parcel of land? The effect of the proposed changes on the new hotel projects that are currently being designed warrants involvement by everyone who wants to make sure that Rehoboth Avenue does not end up showcasing buildings with zero architectural interest. 

It is important to remember that the one square mile of the city of Rehoboth Beach is not a suburban community, nor is it a retirement community. It is a city that hosts tens of thousands of visitors eight to nine months a year with a vibrant restaurant scene, beach and boardwalk, farmers market, recreational dock, and hopefully one day a performing arts center. What can you do? Send an email by Oct. 15 to [email protected], asking the mayor and city commissioners to pause making these patchwork changes to the city code, changes that will have negative unintended consequences for years to come. Ask them to do what was programmed in the budget over a year ago—to hire a zoning expert to look holistically at the city ordinances and make practical, coordinated changes that incentivize development that sustains the aesthetics and prosperity of our town. 

Pat Coluzzi is a former city commissioner for the city of Rehoboth Beach.

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