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  • Writer's pictureMike Fowler

Coming Out and Coming to Terms with Matthew Shepard

Twenty one years ago at this time, Matthew Shepard was fighting for his life in a Fort Collins hospital bed, having been brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in a remote area. For over 18 hours Shepard hung there in the nearly freezing temperatures. A random cyclist discovered his body, thinking at first that it was scarecrow. Six days after the attack, Matthew would die. For those of us struggling with their sexuality, news of Matthew's death had an indelible impact.

Twenty one years ago I was just beginning my teaching career at a private Southern Baptist Christian school living in fear and complete denial about who I was. I knew that I had been gay my entire life, but in the environment that I grew up in, it was considered a sin worse than murder. Those that know me personally, know that when I talk about growing up gay, I do so in a pretty self deprecating manner. Yeah, I was that kid that a total mess on the sports field. I went to extreme lengths to avoid dressing out for P.E., going so far as ripping my gym shorts and intentionally rolling my ankle to convince the coach to let me sit out. When my friends and I were at sleep overs on a Friday night, they'd be whooping and hollering over Daisy Duke while watching The Dukes of Hazzard and I'd be privately wishing Bo and Luke would have another legendary shirtless scene.

Growing up gay in my hometown was a lonely existence. Crazily enough, some of my best friends were actually gay but we never discussed it. It seems so odd to think that we never admitted it to ourselves back then and lived essentially dateless existences, except for the time that my parents forced me to ask a girl to go to Prom which ended up being one of the most awkward evenings of my life. You can see by my picture that I was absolutely thrilled about going.

After college, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to join the staff at a local Christian school. I remember signing my contract and there was a specific morality portion in which, among other things, that homosexuality was a sin. By then I had already accepted that God was just going to bring me the right woman to change me or that I would just live life without romantic attachments. Everyone was intent on setting me up and I relented on occasion to go out on a few of them. It was almost comical because the true sign of a gentleman was not to try and go too far with a young lady. Needless to say, I was the PERFECT GENTLEMAN.

It was about this time that my brother came out to my parents. It did not go well and ended with my parents disowning him for a time. In the aftermath, the pressure was on me to be "the good son". It was an odd time with my parents inviting members of the church over for prayer circles which were ironically led by Reverend Gay.

After three years of teaching there, I decided to leave and accepted a job in Rhode Island for a year and then moved to Tampa. Upon arrival in Tampa I was absolutely determined to continue my quest of becoming straight. Secretly, I delved into the torture of reparative therapy through Exodus International and even a mail order therapy where some church would send tapes in the mail and you'd send back assignments. I remember spending hours on those assignments and then breaking down into wailing fits of tears because I was feeling totally hopeless.

It was at this time that I saw The Laramie Project on HBO which told the story of Matthew Shepard and the aftermath of his brutal murder. Since his death, I had approached the story with trepidation because it served as sort of a warning to me. I thought that I could easily be the next one. Looking back, viewing the film began a series of events where I decided that I was just so very tired of living a lie.

I went to my first gay bar after researching one that was appropriately far enough away. Even then I sat in the car and was terrified not only of the thought of going in, but of also crossing the parking lot and street to get in. In my mind, I kept imagining that some of my students would drive by and see me going in.

So much has changed in the last 21 years. I've been with my husband for almost 12 years and we've been married two of them. It's hard to believe that I experienced so much fear back then, but I am so thankful to have made the decision to live life honestly. I could write an entire book about the coming out process which would end up being part horror and part comedy, but that is just a bit too much for a blog post.

Last year, Matthew Shepard was finally laid to rest at Washington National Cathedral. His parents had kept his ashes, afraid that if they buried them they'd be disturbed. Within the walls of the cathedral, Matthew is finally safe and resting alongside Helen Keller and her beloved teacher, Anne Sullivan. His was the first interment of a public figure since Keller 50 years earlier. A hero of mine and inspiration in my own coming out experience, openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson presided over the service.

As I sit here writing, the Supreme Court is deciding on whether sex discrimination in the workplace applies to the LGBTQ community. I am not sure of what the outcome will be, but with the events of the last two years, I do worry but still hold onto hope. Perhaps our justices will be reminded of Matthew Shepard fighting for his life twenty one years ago and remember that equality is not just a political right, but a human right.

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