I have a magnet on my refrigerator that was left behind by my mother. It is the only one of her magnets that I haven’t taken down. It simply states, “I support the Matthew Shepard Foundation.” It took a long time to get up there and hopefully, it will never come down.
I came out to my parents when I was 18, in 1990. At that time, gay men and lesbians were still hiding, they weren’t seen on television and in movies and they definitely weren’t made judges, like Ellen Degeneres, on American Idol. If we were seen in movies, we were cast as AIDS patients or effeminate guys prancing around. While those stereotypes might have been true of some, they weren’t true of everyone. My dad and stepmother were easy to come out to, being that my father is a surgeon, a man of medicine, who believed that sexual orientation was decided at birth. I thought my mother would be just as easy to comfort, but that wasn’t the case.
Some background on my mother is important. She was extremely liberal, always voted Democrat, and believed in the underdog. She lived in Chicago during the late sixties and worked at Northwestern Library and as a teacher at an orthodox Hebrew school. At that school, she was the only gentile employee and most of her students were first generation immigrants to the United States, whose parents still had concentration camp numbers imprinted on their arms. My mother and my aunt both went to inner city schools and graduated from Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis. My mother would tell stories about spending her summers at the Rivera Country Club and remembered different bathrooms and water fountains for “white” and “colored” people. She would become extremely outraged by any mistreatment of humanity, yet she struggled with my being gay. “I’m just really worried about you Peter.” She said. “Don’t worry mom, I’m not stupid, I’ll be safe.” I replied, meaning practicing safer sex practices. To this day, I remember her sitting back in her chair, smirking, as if I could not grasp her simple meaning. “I’m not worried about you getting sick.” She said, “I’m worried about how society will treat you.” And there began our journey together.
For several years afterward, she would introduce my boyfriends as “friends” to people she knew, and even to some of her closest, “Christian” friends, she struggled when they asked her if I had a girlfriend or why I wasn’t married. Until, October 7th, 1998. I remember sitting at home that night and my mom calling me. “Are you watching this on the news?” she said. Of course I wasn’t. I rarely watched the news, unlike she and my father, who had always been news junkies and were always up to the minute on world events. “No, what’s going on mom.” She began sobbing on the other end of the phone. “There’s this boy from the University of Wyoming who was beaten and left for dead out in the middle of nowhere because he was gay. It’s just so horrible.” She was inconsolable. Finally after several minutes, she got off of the phone and told me she would call me the next day. Which she did, before my alarm even went off. “Ok, I’ve been on the phone with the hospital all night trying to contact his mother.” I had no idea what she was talking about, as my mind had drifted away from any misery in the night. “What the hell are you talking about?” I said. “Matthew Shepard.” She replied, “That boy from Wyoming. He’s at the hospital in Colorado and they’re not sure he will make it. I’ve been trying to contact his mother to let her know how bad I feel for her and how I relate, but they won’t put me through.” The hilarious point, if there is any, of this statement is that my mother always felt entitled to be part of any event. If there was a car accident, she would pull over and ask the police if they needed help. If a national official was in trouble, she would attempt to write a letter or educate others. Yet at times, she didn’t know when to pull back.
Five days later, Matthew Shepard died. My mother was silent for almost two days and then asked me to come over to her condo because she needed to talk to me. When I got to her house, she had made a pot of coffee and we sat down in the living room. “What is it?” I asked, not sure what the seriousness of the occasion would entail. “I want to know.” She said. “I want to know what it’s been like for you. Matthew Shepard died from hate and I want to know what it’s been like for you through the years because honestly, I wouldn’t even know you were gay if you hadn’t told me.”(and to this, I still give a little chuckle.)But I told her anyway…
I told her how in elementary school and junior high, kids would make fun of me for my lack of athletic ability. They would also point to the “homogenized milk” cartons at lunch, and laugh at me, saying I was like the milk. They would lisp, they would push, they would attack. And it didn’t get any better in high school. Every day, I dreaded going to school because I was afraid of what someone would write on my locker, spray on my car, or say as I walked through the hallways. I would constantly be called a faggot, pushed into lockers and made fun of by the kids around me. And worse still, even my friends wouldn’t stand up for me. When graduation closed in on me, I was afraid to walk across the stage because of my fear that someone might call me names as I walked across the stage and my parents would be privy to the private pain I wore every day.
A strange side note to this story is that I had one such nemesis in high school named Matt. Although he wasn’t aware of this, for years after high school, the things that he and his friends said and did to me lingered, making me shy in social situations and ashamed of being gay. Finally, my determination to challenge ignorance such as theirs helped me to become the strong, proud person I am today, capable of having healthy relationships and friendships. The strange part is that he befriended me on Facebook less than a year ago. He is now aware of how I felt in high school, has taken responsibility and I now consider him a friend. We all grow up. We all deserve a second chance. Even me. But high school was hell. And I have to believe in some way it contributed to my extreme substance abuse because as long as I was wasted, I didn’t really care what people said to or about me. But my mother did.
And she couldn’t contain her hurt that day we had our talk. She wanted to personally call the parents of every “child” that had been mean to me and make them aware of how their children had treated me. But I was almost thirty at that point, and life had moved on, and there wasn’t really any point anyway. But for her, things changed. She no longer called my boyfriends “friends”. In fact, my ex-boyfriend Shawn became a permanent part of our family and was probably one of the people closest to her in her life. She was not ashamed or protective of me anymore, and felt that it should be the other persons shame or burden to carry if they couldn’t handle the fact that her son was gay. When she died, I received a letter from the Matthew Shepard Foundation regarding my mother and found countless letters she had written Judy Shepard, Matthews mother, rough drafted in her many notebooks about how society was a cruel frontier and how mothers were the captains of their children’s ships. One of our closest friends, MaryAnn, contributed to this foundation, because she knew how much my mother cared about it’s cause and how her endearing love for me was also in her love for me as her gay son. And then the fight continued…or so I thought.
Because I met Alex. And he changed my perspective on everything. He wasn’t quite as out with his family as I had been, being that he is much younger and that culturally and religiously his mother is not necessarily at the same point my mother was by the time she was fifty. But I believe that will come with time. Because love endures and love translates what we do not understand, but feels it’s intensity nonetheless. And I love his mother because she has amazing energy and has allowed me to become part of their family. And Alex has challenged me on words like “fag” and “faggot”. He believes that these “words” only carry as much weight as we give them. And on a few occasions when someone has called him one of these names, he responds with something like, “thank you for noticing.” And maybe that’s the way to go about it. Because this Saturday, we’ll be heading to our engagement party that his coworkers are throwing us. And tonight we took his teenage brother to see a movie. And yesterday we went grocery shopping and took our new pups all over town. Because we’re just like everyone else and we don’t need to be separate. It’s important to bring the awareness to the gay community, but maybe it’s more important for us to lessen the tension, just a little bit. Why take ourselves so damn seriously.
But it does remind me of how we treat each other. And how words have lasting impressions like a burn from a curling iron on your forehead. Or how love is not pain, but endurance, compassion and understanding. Love does not hurt. And everyone deserves the chance to grow up. Everyone. But Matthew Shepard wasn’t given that chance. So for that reason, I think today I’ll forgive everyone that gave me a hard time in high school, and especially Matt, because he’s pretty cool these days and if we ever got together I think enough time has gone by that we might be able to be pretty good friends. But most importantly, because people are dying everyday, and quite frankly, it’s easier to love than to hate. And the saddest part of this story to me, is that my mother never got to meet Alex. And he was never able to meet her. And we just don’t know when are chances run will run out…because, we’re on borrowed time as it is…