Metro Weekly

Matthew Shepard’s father confronts Tennessee about teen suicides, bullying, hate crimes

Dennis Shepard, appeared at a press conference sponsored by the Tennessee Equality Project this week. He directed his comments toward parents about the need to hold the state’s legislators responsible for protecting gay youth against bullying at school and online. He referenced the suicides of two Tennessee teens in his speech — Phillip Parker and Jacob Rogers — who were reported to be the targets of bullying at school.

Shepard asked if he could take part in the conference because of legislation being proposed in Tennessee. Unfortunately, certain lawmakers are pressing for a bills that will suppress the rights and freedoms of LGBT citizens. The “Don’t Say Gay Bill” is meant to prevent any teacher from discussing anything to do with homosexuality in elementary schools. Also the “Bathroom Bill” is intended to criminalize the use of bathrooms or dressing rooms by people who are transgendered — people who wish to use facilities appropriate to their self-identified gender which may be different from the sexual organs with which they were born. A third bill nicknamed the “License to Bully” would allow students to berate gay students and denounce homosexuality in class if their views could be considered “religious freedom of expression.”

Dennis Shepard referenced the ongoing efforts of his wife, Judy Shepard. Both Dennis and Judy have worked tirelessly to promote the acceptance of gay, bi and transgender people since their son, Matthew Shepard, was murdered in 1998. Mr. Shepard also suggested that people’s perception of LGBT individuals may be skewed by “flamboyant” media portrayals — fame grabbers who do not reflect the otherwise equally “boring” lives of gay people:

“We have a problem in the schools. We’ve lost two young men in the last 30 days in this state to bullying. Some of which has to do with sexual orientation. These kids need a safe place and a safe haven to go to during the day, and it should be the schools. It should not be a place of dread and fear when you walk into a school. You’re there to learn both facts and figures as well as your social skills.

“And what seems to be happening in this state, along with some other states, is that it’s become a bully pulpit in more ways than one.

“Bullying is a concept that people knew about but didn’t talk much about until lately. There’s the physical bullying, which we’re most used to — which is what happened basically to Matt. Beaten to death.

There’s the verbal bullying — “He’s so gay. She’s so gay” — using the words.

You have electronic bullying now. You also have the emotional bullying that people don’t think about. When you brush by somebody and ignore them when they say “Good morning,” just because they’re different — whether they’re gay or straight doesn’t matter, they’re just “different.” We should be applauding those differences, and trying to take advantage of those differences.

“How can these kids reach their full potential? Schools should be a safe haven, should be rooms and teachers who have volunteered to help these kids in case of bullying, in case of concerns they may have.

“I urge the legislature to work towards an all-inclusive law, or hate crimes, and also for the policies toward schools by the schoolboards to include other areas that are not protected, such as “gender identity, sexualy orientation.” These kids are in fear and they are pushed further into the closet. This is not the time to do that. This country needs their best and their brightest to reach their full potential. They’re not going to do that if they’re afraid to come to school, if they’re afraid to walk down the street, or even if they’re afraid to go home and get on their computer. So, please, I urge all of you to help.

“The kids have potential: Let them succeed or fail on their own. Don’t let them fail because of what has been termed “bullying” because they’re different. It’s not just the kids who are gay, its also the kids who are perceived to be gay. I get comments all the time from the so-called straight community: “Well that’s okay when you’re gay.” And I say, “What if you had a son or daughter who isn’t gay, but they’re perceived to be and they’re abused in that fashion, and they’re beaten, because people think they’re gay? What do you do then?” They have no answer.

“So, please, talk to you legislators. Talk to your community, to your neighbors. The legislature works for you. You vote them in. You verify that they’re following their campaign promises. You hold them accountable. And, if not, you vote them out. 

“When my wife speaks, she talks about a “sick community.” And if you don’t vote, you’re part of the sick community … silent, different and complacent. Don’t be part of the sick community. The gay community is just as dull and boring as the straight community. Please remember that. The ones that you see on TV are trying to get their 15 minutes of fame, with the feathers and the boas. If you think that’s all their is, they you have to remember that in Brazil, when they have Carnival, is everybody there gay? I don’t think so. Now they’re just as flamboyant, and they have the feathers and the boas. 

“So, please, hold them accountable. Protect everybody. Get a hate crimes law passed in this state that protects everybody. They’re all-American citizens. They need all the rights of all American citizens — not just a limited number of rights. Protect your kids in schools. They need to have all-inclusive policies protecting them. This can only be done through you because you control the schoolboards. Make this a safe haven. They want a gay-straight alliance in their school, give it to them. More than half the kids in the gay-straight alliances are straight. It’s the allies who are important.

“So tell your stories, get their support, and do whatever you can.”

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