Thirteen years ago last week, on Oct. 7, 1998, University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten by two men and left tied to a fence to die, all because of his orientation as a gay man.
This senseless and tragic act brought national attention to hatred and bigotry against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, and starkly illuminated the critical need for equality for every American. However, it would be another 11 years before the federal government would extend hate crimes legislation to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability.
Today, the need for acceptance of those who may be different than us has never been greater.
In an attempt to foster this acceptance, there has recently been a media focus on the huge amount of bullying in schools across the country and especially acts directed towards LGBT teenagers. Over the past year alone, we have heard terrible stories of young people committing suicide because of the discrimination leveled against them by others.
According to The Trevor Project, a national suicide prevention organization for LGBT youth, teenagers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers.
What we, as a collective society, must show them is that there is hope and that life gets better. There are numerous resources teenagers can look to for help, including the Trevor Project and the “It Gets Better Project.”
The latter was started by Dan Savage, a gay columnist who made an Internet video with his husband. In the video, the two urged young people to hold on just a little longer because there are so many good things to look forward to in the future. It has become a viral success, and scores of celebrities, public figures and ordinary citizens have made their own videos to show bullied LGBT teens that there is no shame in being themselves.
It is of the utmost importance that we do not turn our back on these teenagers who experience discrimination because they may be different from their peers. In a culture where people are “straight until proven otherwise,” we have to show them that their sexuality is an important aspect of their being that makes them unique, not a freak.
It is totally unacceptable to argue that “bullying is a part of life that all kids go through.” That implies that bullying, in any form, against any person, is accepted by society. It should not be and it cannot be. It is this harassment and prejudice, and the hopelessness that there is no way out, that has taken too many young lives from our midst.
While we have come a long way since that October night 13 years ago, we have such a long way to go. By accepting the LGBT community as equals and showing bullied teens that their future is bright, you can actually save a life. By showing them compassion and shunning those narrow-minded groups who continue to spread hate, we can unite our nation and make our communities a better place to live.
We must not just tolerate each other’s differences, we must embrace them. One life taken is too many.
Take a stand against bullying and prejudice in all its nasty forms for Billy Lucas, for Cody J. Barker, for Seth Walsh, for Jamey Rodemeyer for Matthew Shepard-for all those born into a world that should have treated them better.