MAXWELL:  Fanning the flames of homophobia

10/14/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Matthew Shepard, 21, is dead. Hate _ of a special American kind _ killed him.

Still on a ventilator, he died early Monday. His parents were at his bedside. Matthew, a University of Wyoming student, was savagely beaten last week in an apparent hate crime because he was gay.

He was not just gay. This courageous student lived his gayness in the sunlight _ just like the rest of us live our lives, openly and freely.

According to the police, Russell Henderson, 21, and Aaron McKinney, 22, lured Matthew out of a local bar and into a pickup by pretending that they were gay. Then, police say, the duo kidnapped Matthew, whipped him with a .357 Magnum, tied him to a wooden fence and burned him over part of his body.

He remained there for about 18 hours in near-freezing weather until a bicyclist, thinking at first that he had seen a scarecrow, discovered the victim. In addition to the other wounds, Matthew’s skull was crushed.

Police officials said that Matthew, of small stature, begged for his life. But his attackers, driven by hate, pounded him into unconsciousness.

The hate _ an ever-growing homophobia in the United States _ that killed this young man is the same brand that is being spread by some of the country’s most powerful elected officials, including Republicans Trent Lott and Dick Armey. These men, who should be inculcating wisdom on the airwaves, are teaching citizens to hate by calling homosexuality an “evil.”

Apparently, Lott and Armey do not know that hate is the real evil. Worse, however, is the role of organized religion in this campaign of inhumanity. Each Sunday, too many ministers are using their pulpits to wage an unholy war against gay people. Early last Sunday, for example, I listened to a televangelist inveigh against “homosexuals” for more than 15 minutes.

This preacher and others like him are partly responsible for the climate that creates the killers of gay people. Instead of being places of understanding, civility and love, many churches are incubators of intolerance. In August, if you recall, the world’s Anglican bishops, meeting in Canterbury, England, voted 526-70 to adopt a resolution condemning homosexuality as being “incompatible with Scripture” and advised against ordaining gays and lesbians.

No good will come of this move. It is a ticket to hate.

The Christian Coalition, with close ties to the national Republican Party organization, may have done more than any other group to condemn gay people to violence _ and murder. In an attempt to distance itself from Matthew’s murder, the Christian Coalition’s national office released a statement on Monday calling for “zero tolerance for such crimes.”

If the coalition felt no complicity, why did it issue such a statement?

In the Tampa Bay area, the Indian Rocks First Baptist Church has been distributing material, published by David Caton’s Florida Family Association, attacking a School Board member who approves of a gay support group on campus. I have read the fliers and can report that they are intended to create the kind of climate that killed Matthew Shepard. Many gay students in the area said that they feel threatened.

Why is a church _ with the word “Christian” in its name _ engaged in such a hateful, ungodly campaign?

And I am sad to write that most black churches are no better than the Indian Rocks First Baptists of the nation. Gay-bashing long has been the black church’s middle name. And untold numbers of black gays have been brutalized _ and murdered _ because our churches, black culture’s most important institution, have condemned gay people to lives of hell on earth.

I do not put much stock in comments like those of the Christian Coalition that follow tragedies. Why not issue statements of tolerance each day? Why not make tolerance official policy?

That is what Unitarian Universalists nationwide do. I attended services at the Unitarian Universalist Church in St. Petersburg last Sunday, where the Rev. Dee Graham is the pastor, and was inspired when a girl lit a candle for Matthew Shepard. Little did we know that Matthew would die a few hours later.

For me, the Unitarian Church in St. Petersburg is an oasis in a world of hate. Listen to part of its “Vision” statement _ a statement that embraces Matthew Shepard: “We cherish and celebrate our diversity. Let us love and inspire one another to change the world.”