Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard"

The fence where Matthew Shepard was left to die.
We do not live in a world that is always kind or fair.  Homosexuals in this country have had to deal with bullying, beatings, and much, much worse for decades.  In recent years we have seen a shift in the way we treat gays in our country.  The most noticeable of which is the increase of same-sex marriages in this country.  According to, there are now 17 states which allow same-sex marriage.  This is much greater than it was 10 years ago, but that still leaves 33 states where it is banned.  And it ignores the fact that this shouldn’t be a question in the first place.  And it by no way means that homosexuals are respected by all in our country.  We have a long way to go in this country, and I can’t help but love every single person who is trying to make things better.

I bring up this issue because of the book I want to review.  October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (published 2012), written by Leslea Newman, is a book that brings to light the hatred, prejudice, and bigotry in our country.  A series of sixty-eight poems, Leslea Newman gives us her personal response to the brutal beating and murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998.  On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was at a bar.  Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson pretended to be gay and managed to get Matthew Shepard in their truck.  From there, they drove him to the outskirts of Laramie, where they beat him with a pistol.  They tied him up and left him to die.  Did they take anything?  Yes.  $20 and his shoes.  According to the author’s introduction, “the next day, at about 6:00 p.m—eighteen hours after the attack—he was discovered and taken to a hospital.  He never regained consciousness and died five days later, on Monday, October 12, with his family by his side”(p.x).  This brutal, senseless murder garnered national attention.  At the time, this was not legally considered a hate crime.  In 2009, 11 years after Mathew Shepard’s death, President Obama signed into law The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd., Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  Among other things, it categorized bodily injury crimes against gays as a hate crime.

                Around ten years after Matthew’s death, something else was going on.  Leslea Newman was remembering the death of Matthew Shepard.  Newman is the openly gay author of Heather Has Two Mommies, a book that has stirred controversy since its publication in 1989. Her connection to Shepard’s death is a sad one.  Mathew Shepard died on October 12th: October 11th started the Gay Awareness Week that was being put on by the University of Wyoming’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Association.  There was to be a keynote speaker during these events, and that was Leslea Newman.

                The poems that Newman writes in this Stonewall Honor book craft us a story.  Going in chronological order, the poems are meant to be read from front to back, at least on the first time through.  The poems are told from different perspectives, everything from the fence that he laid upon; the girlfriends of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson; the biker who first found Matthew; and even a deer that was in the field.  There is no real mercy for Henderson and McKinney—this is not the book that expunges them of any guilt.  Indeed, Newman says that, “the poems are not an objective reporting of Matthew Shepard’s murder and its aftermath; rather they are my own personal interpretation of them”(p.xi).  I love the lack of objectivity as poem after poem gives us how angry and hunt this woman was by what happened to this poor boy.  She gives more feeling to a fence post that she does McKinney and Henderson.  I can’t say I blame her for that.

                I want to just type up all the poems that I want to commit to memory and share them with you, but I can’t.  So, I’ll just share one of my favorites instead, and talk about why I feel it is so superb.

                Heartfelt apology

This is just to say
I’m sorry
I kept beating
and beating
your shattered chest
Forgive me
for keeping you
so long
I knew I would kill me
to let you go.

Newman has personified Matthew’s very heart.  Matthew lingered for so long and his heart tried so hard to keep beating, but in the end it had to let go.  The beating of his heart is very different from the other one that he suffered.  An apology from one’s own heart.  What can you even say to that?

Matthew Shepard
                The fence that Matthew was tied to gets a poem at the before, during, and after Matthew’s death.  At the beginning, before Matthew, the fence wonders “Will somebody someday stumble upon me?  Will anyone remember me after I’m gone?”(p.xv). Knowing what we have been given about Matthew in the introduction, we already know the answer to the fence’s question.  We can also see how Matthew Shepard can be seen as the fence, wondering if anyone will stumble upon his broken body and remember him after his life is over.  In the poem where Matthew is dying on the fence, the fence “cradled him just like a mother  I held him all night long”(p.16).  At the end, the fence is torn away, but just like Matthew, it is “gone but not forgotten”(p.82).  In the opening and ending poems, the fence becomes a metaphor for Matthew.  In the middle poems, the fence is more of a witness to the crime.  It literally gives us a new perspective and somehow brings us deeper into that night.  I think it is also no coincidence that the book itself is tall and skinny, just like a fence post.

                My favorite part about the book is the actual quotes that are interspersed on some poems.  When you personify a deer and a fence post, it takes you away from reality a little bit.  Including these actual quotes brings us right back into the scene, right back to the fence post where Matthew Shepard lay dying on the ground.  The tears first started coming to my eyes when I read the quote from Officer Reggie Fluty, a police officer who was at the crime scene.  He said, “The only place that he didn’t have any blood on him, on his face, was what appeared to be where he’d been crying”(p.24).  Do you see it now?  Do you see him lying on that fence, beaten, alone, and able to do nothing but cry?  Another quote is one from Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father.  The prosecution was seeking the death penalty.  Matthew’s parent spoke up and Dennis said, “Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives”(p.76).  The man whose son was brutally beaten found enough forgiveness in his heart to request that they not receive the death penalty.

                These two quotes put such stark images in my mind.  One of a boy who had done nothing except be gay and died for it.  The other of a man who experienced something no father should have to experience, and yet was able to find forgiveness.  Why is it so hard for some people and yet so easy for others to just accept people the way they are?  What baffles me so much about this story and these poems is that this story isn’t over.  Many great things in the name of equality have happened since Matthew’s death, but there is still prejudice.  Newman says that “I hope that each reader of October Morning:  A Song for Matthew Shepard will think of one thing to do to help end homophobia and do it this week”(p.90).  As I give this book over to a friend to read and write this blog, I hope this little bit of unashamed acceptance and vocal plea for equality can be my part.

                If you want more information about Matthew Shepard, there is a Matthew Shepard Foundation that you can visit.  It has resources, support, stories, and so much more people who are struggling and people who want to help with the struggle.  There has also been a movie made called “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” that has started something of a movement here in America.  For LGBT teens who are dealing with homophobia, there is an “It Gets Better” movement going on in America.  You can take the pledge at their site, which is that, “Everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. I pledge to spread this message to my friends, family and neighbors. I'll speak up against hate and intolerance whenever I see it, at school and at work. I'll provide hope for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other bullied teens by letting them know that it gets better.”  There’s a lot of resources out there, and I hope that the number increases, as does equality and acceptance here in the United States and across the world.
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