As part of National Coming Out Week, members of several LGBT organizations gathered last night for a candlelight vigil on the Diag to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, who was killed in a hate crime 10 years ago.
Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, died after he was beaten, tied to a fence and pistol-whipped by two teenagers. Shepard’s death sparked a nationwide discussion of the state of violence, hate and intolerance toward members of the LGBT community. University students aimed to continue the conversation with last night’s vigil.
The Matthew Shepard Act — which calls to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or disability to the federal hate-crime law — was introduced to Congress during the Clinton administration, but has yet to be passed.
LSA freshman Matthew Shur, an LGBT Commission coordinator who went to the vigil, said he was disappointed by the continued intolerance toward members of the LGBT community since Shepard’s death.
“There’s been progress since then, but there also hasn’t been,” Shur said, citing a 207 percent increase in hate crimes in Michigan from 2006 to 2007, according to the Triangle Foundation, a statewide LGBT rights organization.
“Hate crimes happened very often, but they didn’t get news coverage. This was a college student, murdered by teens — they were kids,” Shur said. “That really grabbed the nation’s attention and started the push for LGBT hate-crime legislation.”
Michigan is one of 33 states that has yet to ban discrimination on the basis of one’s sexual orientation.
More than 100 students and Ann Arbor residents attended the vigil, during which participants took turns reading nine fictionalized narratives written from the perspective of victims who had died from hate crimes. Attendees passed pictures of the victims during the readings. LSA sophomore Gibran Baydoun, a Michigan Student Assembly representative, said he was moved by the vigil.
“It makes it so real. It’s scary to know that anti-LGBT crimes are not slowing down. It feels like we’re moving backward in time,” Baydoun said. “It’s scary that it’s 2008 and we still have to deal with these issues.”
After reading the narratives, the attendees silently placed 288 flags in the grass near the Diag, each flag representing five victims of hate crimes. Organizers said the total marks the number of victims since Shepard’s death.
The vigil is one of several events taking place this month on campus as part of National Coming Out Week and LGBT History Month. The Spectrum Center, the University’s LGBT office, chose events based on the national theme “It’s About Time.”
“Right now, especially, there’s a lot of talk about change in national politics,” said Gabe Javier, the Spectrum Center’s assistant director. “The goal with ‘It’s About Time’ is letting people fill in their own blank to that. Whether it’s about time for equality, to come out, to talk about things, we need change, and now is the time.”
The commemoratory month kicked off with the annual NCOW Rally last Monday, where there were performances and speakers on the Diag. Students also could walk through a door in order to symbolize that they accept their identities.
On Tuesday, the Spectrum Center sponsored a discussion on “A Jihad for Love,” a documentary exploring the complexities of being Muslim and gay. Filmmaker Parvez Sharma facilitated the discussion. Javier said the event aimed to challenge common conceptions of the LGBT community.
“Many people don’t think it’s possible to be Muslim and gay,” Javier said. “Showing his story enables us to have dialogue around those multiple identities.”
The events will continue throughout the month. An Evening with David Sedaris, during which the preeminent gay humorist David Sedaris will read from his latest book, takes place on Thursday at 8 p.m. in Hill Auditorium. Gay in the Holy Land, a lecture with Israeli LGBT activist Danny Savtich, will be held on Thursday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. in the Michigan Union. The month’s festivities will end on Tuesday, Oct. 28 with an LGBT Training Program, intended to train allies of the gay community in activism.