FRAMINGHAM – Twenty years ago in October, Matthew Shephard was tortured and murdered because of who he was, because he was gay.
He had the courage to be himself even in the face of disrespect, disdain, and discrimination. The story of his murder gripped a nation still coming to terms with
its brutal history of fearing the unknown. In the weeks and months that followed, our society was forced to face the reality that blatant ignorance and hate of difference could have such horrific consequences. Today that same fear and ignorance is manifest in the effort to repeal civil rights protections for transgender people in our Commonwealth.
For many young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people, myself among them, Matthew’s murder validated all of our worst fears. We had been forced to grow accustomed to the ridicule on the playground and on the bus because we were different, with people making it clear that our “different-ness” (before we had words to describe it ourselves) was not going to be tolerated. Matthew’s awful death made me ask if being myself meant not only risking the loss of my family and friends but my life as well. If I am my authentic self, will I be the next casualty?
While we as a society have made huge advancements over the last twenty years with nationwide marriage equality and expanding non-discrimination protections, the same ignorance and fear that took Matthew Shephard prematurely from this Earth, the vitriol that has caused countless LGBTQ youth to take their own lives, continues to permeate our society. Matthew wasn’t the first LGBTQ person to be killed for being himself, he joins an ever-growing list of victims of bigotry and violence. The hatred that led to Matthew’s murder didn’t originate in a field in Wyoming, it was supported by years of discrimination and is leading to staggering
numbers of people, transgender women of color chiefly among them, being murdered each month.
Prior to being elected a state representative, I had the great honor of leading OUTMetroWest, a regional organization that provides LGBTQ middle and high school youth emotional and social support. Complementing the great work done in many area schools, our organization served over 800 young people during our first six years of operation. We talked about healthy relationships, provided guidance on “coming out” to family, and more than anything, had a lot of fun watching movies, eating pizza, and providing the youth a safe place to be themselves. In our conversations we heard about the highs and lows of their lives. We learned when a youth made the sports team or had a successful audition or when a test didn’t go as planned or when there was trouble with a friend.
A strong piece of our program were adult advisors who could “relate” to the experiences of LGBTQ young people. These adults had experienced many of the same pressures to conform and had their own share of bully wounds, but they survived adolescence and appeared to be doing more than simply surviving as adults. We believed that it was important for youth to see themselves, past, future, and present, in the trained adult advisors who, like me, were doing what was once thought impossible: living our lives openly, marrying our partners, adopting children, and proving that life eventually gets better. While there is a lot of power and truth to this, many of our youth had concerns that were far more urgent and imminent:
“Knowing I can grow up and get married regardless of my gender or the gender of my significant other is great, but I’m not sure I will make it to adulthood.”
“Knowing that life gets better might make me feel better in hindsight, but when I am trying to manage the hallways, locker rooms, and complexities of school, life doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”
“Knowing I have more rights than you did when you were my age is great, but if I don’t have the right to be my honest self in public, does the rest of it even matter?”
For many of the young people I worked with, marriage equality, at least in Massachusetts, has long been a part of their memory. But when you are afraid to “come out” or use the restroom for fear for your safety, what solace does marriage equality provide, especially for transgender youth?
I remember the conversation in 2012 when our youth realized that even in Massachusetts, the rights of transgender people were not protected in our non-discrimination laws. With many of the youth I had the pleasure of working with identifying as transgender and/or questioning their gender identity, this realization was difficult. Even with the great progress we had made as a society regarding the rights of LGBTQ people, they could still be discriminated against in employment, housing, and access to public spaces. I remember the passion that many youth felt by emailing and calling their elected officials, and becoming strong advocates for their rights. It was sad that they needed to work so hard to defend their right to exist. I remain extremely proud of their efforts though and am grateful the legislature passed these protections into law two years ago.
The idea that these human rights are now up for a vote is disgusting.
For the first time in our country’s history, the repeal of statewide rights for transgender people are on the ballot.
Outside groups are trying to confuse us and divide us by making us think of ridiculous, baseless scenarios. These groups do not represent who we are as a Commonwealth, and I urge everyone to look beyond the confusion, the hate, and the fear, and instead to vote to uphold the rights of all our Commonwealth’s residents, including the rights of all our children.
The hate that fuels the repeal efforts of our statewide protections for transgender people is the same hate that leads to the discrimination that many still must navigate each day. It is the same hate that is leading the Trump administration’s push to remove transgender people from federal recognition. We cannot allow anyone to be legislated out of existence, and you can help to ensure that doesn’t happen on November 6.
Help young people continue to have the protections they deserve so that they can not only survive but thrive in their own lives. Help defeat the hate and fear that has hurt so many LGBTQ people over the centuries, and instead join your neighbors in building a better future for all by voting Yes on Question 3.
Rep. Jack Patrick Lewis
Framingham and Ashland