Thursday, March 5, 2015

Opening the Floodgates (The Meaning of Matthew)

Matthew Shepard, 1976-1998
(Originally posted to my blog, "Late Night: Tales From the Graveyard Shift")

I work weekend graveyard shifts at a gas station and convenience store in Missoula, Montana. The other night a custumor came in who, by appearance alone, let loose in me a flood of powerful emotions. He looks just like Matthew Shepard.

A brief summary: Matthew was a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who, on the night of October 6, 1998, was brutally beaten, tortured and left tied to an old fence post near Laramie, Wyoming. Six days later he died in a hospital from head injuries. He was murdered by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson who are now serving two consecutive life sentences in prison.

There are some witnesses who say McKinney pretended to be gay to lure Matthew away from a bar and rob him. Others say the crime was drug-related and based more on greed than homophobia. McKinney's girlfriend first said McKinney became enraged when Matthew made "sexual advances" towards him, but she later recanted her story. In a well-researched article for The Advocate, a national gay right magazine, Aaron Hidling wrote that investigators had "amassed enough anecdotal evidence to build a persuasive case that Shepard's sexuality was, if not incidental, certainly less central than popular consensus had lead us to believe."  But Dave O'malley, the Larmie policeman who led the murder investigation, said: "I feel comfortable in my own heart that they did what they did to Matt because they had hatred towards him for being gay."

Fred Phelps, the hateful leader of the Westboro Babtist Church, certainly believed Matthew died because he was gay, and seemed to credit God for the murder; he organized a picket at Shepard's funeral of ignorant church members holding signs with statements such as, "God Hates Fags!" (Although Phelps is now dead, his Westboro group still maintains a despicable website depicting a photo of Matthew surrounded by flames stating "how many days Matthew Shepard has been in hell.")  In one of the most thoughtful, well-executed anti-protests ever conceived, Matthew's friends dressed as angels at his funeral and surrounded the Westboro protesters, blocking them with giant outstretched wings. (The organizer, Romaine Patterson, has since formed an organization called Angel Action.)

Matthew's murder rallied activists all over the world to raise awareness of abuse and mistreatment of gay people and push for hate crime legislation. Matthew's parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, became (and remain) prominent gay-rights activists and led a successful battle for passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (commonly called the Matthew Shepard Act) which was signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009.

There was a time I did not understand or support "hate crime" legislation. After all, a crime is a crime; assault and murder are already illegal. I've since changed my mind. When a certain segment of people are targeted for and become victims because of who and what they are, such as being gay, it keeps others fearful of being and expressing who and what they are; at times it can keep people afraid of even going out in public. It suppresses freedom and liberty. It is a form of terrorism. The aftermath of Matthew's Shepard's murder helped me understand that better. 

Judy Shepard also formed the Matthew Shepard Foundation. There have been numerous books, plays, songs and films made about Matthew's murder and the aftermath. (I recently read a powerfully moving book called, "The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie and a World Transformed," published in 2009, and written by Judy Shepard -- a remarkably strong and courageous person.) 

Sadly and unfortunately, it sometimes takes tragedy to create awareness and action.

I first learned of Matthew Shepard the day he died when I returned from an elk hunt in the wilds of Montana. I was still closeted and married — fighting, denying and suppressing my attraction to men, often leading a secret, shameful double life. The news hit me hard, on several fronts; at one point in my life, I had been the stereotypical homophobe who hated in others what I hated in myself. I broke down sobbing. My wife (now my former wife who remains my best friend) was a bit surprised it hit me has hard is it did. Now she understands.

These floodgates of emotion opened up again when Matthew's look-alike came into the store the other night to buy beer. He looked at me kind of funny.

"Wow, you look like Matthew Shepard," I told him.
"I get that all the time," he said.
"I hope you take it as a compliment; Matthew Shepard was a beautiful man," I replied.
"Thank you," he said. "It used to bother me, but then I learned about Matthew and now I am pretty proud to look like him."

Such is the meaning of Matthew.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Honey, One Night With Me and You Won't Be Gay!"

I recently took a part time job working weekend graveyard shifts at a gas station and convenience store in Missoula, Montana. Late one night a very inebriated woman comes in:

INEBRIATED WOMAN: "Are you new here?"
ME: "Kind of. I've been here a few months now."
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "Oh, I haven't seen you before."
ME: "I only work Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights."
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "Oh, well you seem nice."
ME: "Thanks."
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "And you're very handsome if you don't mind me saying."
ME: "Aw . . .thanks! I don't mind at all!"

INEBRIATED WOMAN: "Are you single?"
ME: "Yes, I am."
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "Would you like to go out sometime?"
ME: "You mean like on a date?"
ME: "I am very flattered, thank you, but I am gay."

INEBRIATED WOMAN: "I've heard THAT before!"
ME: "I bet you have!"
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "What's THAT supposed to mean?"
ME: "Well . . . there's a lot of us around; we're everywhere!"
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "Honey, one night with me and you won't be gay."
ME: "Well . . .that's a kind offer but I'm quite happy the way i am, thanks."
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "You're happy being gay?"
ME: "Well . . . that's the meaning of the word, right?"
I ring up her items, hit total . . .
ME: "That will be $12.98 . . . "
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "I'm serious."
ME: "About what?"
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "I can help you."
ME: "But I don't need help."
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "I've changed guys before."
ME: "What? . . Do you work for a Christian reparative therapy group or something?"
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "So now you're making fun of Christians?"
ME: "No. I was kidding."
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "It's not funny."
ME: "Didn't mean to offend you."
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "You didn't offend me, you're offending God."

ME: "Okay . . .well . . . will there be anything else?"
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "I'm serious."
ME: "Okay. Thanks. I appreciate you're concern. Have a good night."
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "I don't judge, but God will judge."
ME: "Will he judge you for trying to sleep with gay guys?"
ME: "No thanks."
ME: "Okay, thanks. Have a good night."
INEBRIATED WOMAN: "You need a good ass-kicking."
ME: "I've heard THAT before!"

(To read more, similar stories visit "Noon's At Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift.")

Friday, August 15, 2014

Freefall: The Last 2,500 Feet?

In 2003 depression, related substance abuse and thoughts of suicide led me to load my backpack, toss my wallet in the garbage, step off my front porch in Missoula, head north, and spend the next 10-weeks by myself hiking through the most remote, wild country left in the continental United States. It saved my life. Here's how it began:  

  “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
                                                                              -- Helen Keller              
As a Force Recon Marine I dove out of planes from altitudes as high as 32,000 feet, night and day, sometimes with full combat gear sometimes without (sometimes right into the ocean, with SCUBA gear attached) from the swamps of coastal North Carolina to the deserts of southeast California, in the scorching heat and humidity of Puerto Rico to the brutally-frigid tundra of northern Norway -- or, as the Marine Corps hymn simply states: in every clime and place. 

And I would tumble, fall, and fly. At least it feels like flying, falling at terminal velocity, speeds of 180 miles-per-hour; a slight tilt of the right hand would turn me quickly right, the left hand would turn me that direction, or I could cuff both hands inward to go forward, or outward to slow my descent. I could hunch up to slow down, or pull hands and legs in to speed up. Place hands and legs together and a missile-like nosedive results, or do flips, or spin, and so on.  By maneuvering in such a manner, a team of Marines can remain together in the sky, and even approach each other and “link up” by locking arms. I once kissed my friend Jim at 10,000-feet above the Earth.   

And as the ground gets bigger and closer, I would check my altimeter on my wrist until reaching a point to “wave off” (a flagging of the hands to warn those above me that I was about to open my chute, so they could move and not crash into me), move my right hand in to the “rip cord” at my chest (making a counter move in and over my head with the left hand, so as to remain in a stable fall and not spin out of control), then pull, rapidly thrusting both hands and arms out, up and forward, like a referee’s signal for a touchdown, tightly gripping the ripcord handle that pulls out the long, thin wire that releases the nylon flaps on the pack, allowing the small spring-loaded pilot parachute to burst free, like a jack-in-the-box, catching wind and pulling the main chute out behind by a cord. The rest, if all went well, happened rapidly – the main chute blossoms open, bringing acceleration to what seems a sudden halt, with such shock at times it once literally jerked me out of my boots over northern Norway  (I got frost bit toes after landing in socks on snow in minus-40 temperatures). And then everything would seem calm, compared to the previous rushing of wind in the ears, and I would gradually steer my way down to the ground, pull down hard on toggles to flare, pause, and land sometimes softly, sometimes hard, depending on the wind, skills and luck. 

At other times, the pilot chute might get caught in the wind pocket in the small of my back (a “snivel” we called it), so I would bang away with my elbow until it caught wind and deployed. Or the main might malfunction, which never happened to me, but if it did, I was trained to “cut away,” or release the main and open the reserve. (“No worries,” my instructor said, “If your main doesn’t open, you have the rest of your life to deploy your reserve.”)  It could sometimes take 1,000 feet or so for the main to open, if everything worked right, and another 1,000 or more to try and rectify things if it didn’t. For this reason, we had a general rule to open at 4,000 to 3,000 feet, and always, always before reaching 2,500 feet; an altitude that shows on the altimeter as red, danger zone – like the “low on gas” signal in a car, only with more severe consequences.   

About the time I was doing lots of jumps, I had a reoccurring dream: I am freefalling, enjoying the ride, when I look at my altimeter and it’s in the red zone, 2,500 feet! I wave off, reach to pull, but I have no parachute on my back. Nothing. At first I am terrified, but quickly calm down. It’s my last 2,500 feet, I figure, I may as well enjoy it. So I smile, and begin doing front flips, and back flips, and then I wake up to the dark silence of the night.

Twenty years later I felt like I finally slammed into hard-packed earth.  My father died. My wife of 14-years filed for divorce. I could no longer focus on the work I used to love, nor any of the activities I used to enjoy. I had spent much of my life feeding secret shadows of shame, guilt, anger and fear until they finally loomed large, like the monsters I imagined in my closet as a kid. I had increasing difficulty trying to resist, deny, hide and suppress my emotional and physical attraction to men. I lost all desire and passion to go on and thought, maybe sometimes it okay to quit, perhaps best to quit. I drove late one drunken night to a trailhead a few miles from my home in Missoula, Montana, to the edge of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, with a shotgun I used to hunt ducks and geese. My plan was to walk a few miles in and blow my head off. Instead, I sat in my car and cried. I thought of my son, then only three, and wondered how he would turn out. I thought of my family. I thought of my friends. I even had the twisted thought; I can hardly hit ducks with this thing. Then I thought of my dream, the last 2,500 feet.  And I thought of my maps. The maps. Maps of the wild country surrounding my home. 

For years I had studied the maps, intrigued by the notion that I could walk off my front porch in town and walk all the way to Alberta through the most remote, wild country left in the continental U.S. and only cross three main (paved) roads. It was a fantasy, a journey of the mind, until that inebriated night I drove to the trailhead with a 12-guage. At that point I thought:   

What the hell. It’s the last 2,500 feet; what do I have to lose?  

by Dave Stalling
For years
I fed illusions
Of flying high
Until the ground grew frightenly close
Terrified, I suddenly realize
I am falling
Leaving the womb
Like leaping from a plane
Begins a tumultuous freefall
There are choices:
Remain frightened, out of control
Or get stable, and enjoy the ride
Until we meet the end
(And we will)
As sure as sky meets earth
Best to see it all now
Long before impact
While there is still time
Precious time
To enjoy an exhilarating ride
And make the most
Of the last 2,500 feet
So I will flare, flip and tumble
Through clouds and clear skies
And pretend I am flying, sometimes
Though I know better
But it still brings me joy
It’s my jump, my journey, my fall
I’ll do it as me, not to please others
Critics and skeptics be damned!
Who cares what they think?
They don’t even know
That they too
Are falling fast

For more, read "Grizzlies Made me Gay"