By Sneha Roychoudhury
Edited by Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
“To undo justice, and to seek
To quash the rights that guard the weak –
To sneer at love, and wrench apart
The bonds of body, mind and heart
With specious reason and no rhyme:
This is the true unnatural crime.”
- Vikram Seth
October 11th, 1988. The National Coming Out Day was observed for the first time in the United States of America, commemorating the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and celebrating the freedom of every human to love and be loved without the fear of judgement or loathing.
October 12th, 1998. Matthew Shepard breathed his last, battered, tortured, beaten and left to die- tied to a fence in the solitude of the sparse city of Laramie, Wyoming. Two men killed him in cold blood, as their veins gushed with anger and their hearts welled up with premeditated rage. This was a hate crime, committed in nothing but a pitiful moment of human shame.
Decades really go by, and we all sit in complacent armchairs, believing we are making ground-breaking progress and substantial change, and perhaps, we are. Then, every once in a while a “Matt” from next door is victimised and slaughtered at the hands of frenzied cruelty and we are all compelled to put those change-inducing typewriters away to think, question and revisit our very belief in humanity. Recently I came across this article in the Huffington Post by LGBTQ+ rights activist Cathy Renna, which moved me to tears and truly addressed the still existing issues of hate-crimes committed against the LGBTQ+ community, world over. October, ironically, happens to be a rather perplexing month. One is torn between mourning for the sacrifice of compassion and equality at the alters of social constructs and violence, and celebrating the one day that encourages individualism and the courage within one to entirely accept oneself as who one truly is.
Renna explores the death of Matt in a commentary fuelled by reason, and yet softened by pathos. She draws to attention a story. The story of a young man, an aspiring activist and a dead, remembered soul. “I never met Matthew Shepard. But his story has made an incredible impact on my life. Because his story is my story. His story is the story of so many of us in the LGBT community,” Cathy says, and her words hold true for so many human minds and hearts that have known and realised the truth that lay beyond the death of Shepard on that unfortunate October Day. Matthew became the face of a rapidly picking up, media-covered movement by “vigils” all over the nation, rising against offences of hooliganism based on homophobia. “Good is coming from evil,” the broken but hopeful Dennis Shepard (Matthew’s father) had said at the trial. Matthew’s parents carried their son’s legacy around the world, “erasing hate” meaning to rid the world of the one thing that took away their son- gory hatred.
As Renna goes on to talk about the trial and all the attention given to Matthew’s story, some riveting truths are revealed about the attitude towards such sensitive issues in the world as we see it today. Even now “the Gay panic Defence” is pled in courtrooms, even today criminals get away with giving the he-made-a-homosexual-pass-at-me-so-I-killed-him argument. What stayed with me, however, was Cathy’s simple and noteworthy response- “If straight women did to straight men what those boys did to Matt, there would be very few straight men left in this world.” Some things, true though they may be, seem rather harsh when spelt out, but what do we shy away from, if not the blunt truth delivered in packages of pinching honesty? How is it that looking away has become such a feasible option to us and that oblivion has become our absolute way of life?
Homophobia is a part of our world today. This article, I shall seek to emphasise, becomes rather befitting of the present scenario in India. We struggle each day to face facts, to embrace truth, to hold tightly on to the veils of our ignorance. We pride ourselves on an intolerant “culture” leeching on our compassion and ability to accept. In our fervour to protect the rigid illusion of security we have created around ourselves, we forget. We forget that those who fight for love are the last upholders of humanity, and that those whom we “other” and those whose causes we greet with apathy are one of us; their fight is ours, the wrongs done to them are wrongs done to mankind. For the day that line we draw between the us and the” them” is wiped off and the day we know that justice is the answer to human woes, that is the day our kind will take its next big leap towards evolution.
I wish to leave my readers with a quote that affected me deeply and one that broke my heart and mended a few crevices in them as well.
“I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process, to show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. … Mr. McKinney, I’m going to grant you life, as hard as that is for me to do, because of Matthew. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, or the Fourth of July, remember that Matt isn’t. Every time that you wake up in that prison cell, remember that you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. … Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”
- Dennis Shepard to Russel Harrison (one of his son’s murderers)
Sneha Roychoudhury is a student of History with a passion for words and can be best described by the collection of books stacked on her shelves and the little doodles made on tattered ends of these volumes. She dreams, and she protects them in a lexical fortress- some of it built and quite some imagined. Music renders her free and literature entwines her being- each mending the chipped pieces of her imperfect soul. Travel and the written word are her soul mates, the world a box of woes and wonder and the untold stories of the nameless millions her singular passion.