NEW HAVEN, Conn. (U-WIRE) — Thirteen months ago, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson lured Matthew Shepard, a homosexual student, from a bar, then savagely beat him and left him for dead on the side of the road on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo. Shepard was found by a bicyclist 18 hours later and died five days after the attack.
Shepard’s parents convinced the prosecutor, Cal Rerucha, to offer a plea bargain of two consecutive life sentences with no chance for parole and no appeals to McKinney after McKinney was convicted last Wednesday of felony murder. Under the terms of the agreement, McKinney will serve the same sentence as co-defendant Henderson who plea-bargained before trial last April for his role in the Oct. 7, 1998 attack.
I agree with the jury foreman, who said that “justice was served” under the terms of the agreement. Matthew Shepard’s death was unnecessary, a tragedy that served no purpose. However, the execution of his killers would have been an unsatisfying ending to me as well, due to my firm opposition to capital punishment.
There are many things that trouble me about the incident: that a human being was killed — at least in part — because of his sexuality. That a life was ended prematurely. That people are capable of such heinous crimes, such malevolence.
But what bothers me to an almost equal extent is the response of the gay community and its supporters.
The Shepard case has become a pillar around which the gay community has rallied at Yale. Last year, three days after Shepard died, more than 200 students gathered at a candlelight vigil on Cross Campus to commiserate over the death of Shepard, to commemorate his life and to share the fears which the crime elicited.
These fears that gays experience are indeed real ones, fears I myself am fortunate enough never to have experienced. Almost every year, it seems there is an incident on Yale’s campus supporting the belief that while Yale provides an environment in which homosexuals — closeted or not — are safe from hate crimes like murder, there is definitely an undercurrent of homophobia here. As the editorial board of the Yale Daily News correctly opinioned last Oct. 15, “Hate exists, and even at tolerant Yale, incidents of homophobic hatred occur.”
It certainly does not bother me that homosexuals are free to convene and express their feelings openly over the death of Shepard. What does bother me, though, are the political ends to which some activists are using Shepard’s death.
For example, many activists are urging the passage of the Hate Crimes Protection Act, currently pending in Congress, which would consolidate and strengthen the hate crime laws of 41 states — 21 one of which cover offenses dealing with a victim’s sexual orientation.
The problems with the act are twofold. First of all, I am opposed to any law that values one person’s life more highly than another person’s life. I don’t believe, as some opponents of the bill have argued, that “every crime is a hate crime.” While it is certainly true that murders are not products of altruistic intentions, it is also true that some killings are premeditated and committed specifically because of the sexual orientation or ethnicity of the victim.
However, it offends me that homosexuals would be afforded more protection under the law than I would, which is what the HCPA is essentially about. Last year, after the Shepard murder, Tyler Schnoebelen supported the HCPA on the Yale Daily News’ editorial page in a piece entitled, “In current climate, gays need protection.” Of course gays deserve protection from crime. But so does everybody else, and harsher sentencing for killers of gays under the guise of labeling specific crimes “hate crimes” or making hate crimes federal offenses sends the message that the life of a homosexual is more valuable than the life of a heterosexual.
The other fundamental problem of the HCPA is that it would serve as a well-veiled attempt to impose political sanctions against unpopular speech. The Bill of Rights protects an individual’s right to be a bigot and to express those sentiments outwardly. People do not have a right to issue threats or to physically hurt others because of their sexuality, but in America they do have a right hate others and express those beliefs politically.
The argument that hate speech can foster an environment in which crimes are motivated by hatred is a valid one. However, it is imperative that we as a society attempt to balance the rights of all people — from bigots to homosexuals — in order to afford all political views a forum. American society is predicated on the notion that all have equal rights and should be afforded equal protection, and the passage of the HCPA would lead us into a morass of separating the intent from the crime.
For example, in relation to the Shepard case, what if Shepard’s killers really did go berserk when they were frightened by a sexual advance by Shepard, a so-called “gay panic” defense? It certainly would not exonerate them of responsibility for the crime, but to institute the death penalty because of their thoughts — even if those thoughts were to the tune of “every faggot is going to hell” — would be equivalent to punishing Shepard’s killers for political beliefs that everyone should have the right to harbor.
The fact is that I personally do not believe that all homosexuals are going to hell; I know too many homosexuals who are good people. Just because I do not approve of their lifestyle does not mean that they are wicked — even if that is what homosexuality means to others. I don’t believe in the persecution of gays. When activists call for tolerance, they have my complete support.
However, that tolerance needs to be extended both ways. As Schnoebelen pointed out in his editorial, “homophobia here is considered socially unacceptable.” I wholeheartedly agree, which is at the crux of the problem: The majority of Yale students have been unwilling to accept the premise that the majority of Americans believe homosexuality is immoral. Thus, majority sentiment is forced underground.
When intolerant views arise, such as anonymous posters which surfaced during the past two years’ Gay Pride weeks, activists have quickly torn them down not because they were anonymous but simply because they don’t like the views and are afraid of the discussions fostered by such posters. What activists fail to realize is that unsigned and bigoted posters do not allow dialogue with the posters’ creators. Instead they allow oppositional viewpoints to be heard and discussed in an environment like Yale’s, where the dialogue is primarily dominated by those who refuse to consider anti-homosexual viewpoints.
If someone were to stand and calmly assert that he or she thinks all homosexuals are evil or deviant, that person’s comment should not be shouted down but rather seen as an opportunity to test the strength of one’s own convictions and engage in reasoned dialogue.
I’ve heard rumblings that the same group that put up posters satirizing Gay Pride Week last spring has plans of doing it again. When the posters resurface, as I am sure they will, the posters need to be left on the wall for all to read and debate in the name of tolerance. Their removal would be an act of cowardice on the part of activists with weak convictions.
We do indeed need to be a more tolerant society in order to prevent tragedies like the Matthew Shepard slaying. But educational programs teaching tolerance are not the route we should take. Coercive education would only breed resentment. Instead, activists need to permit oppositional viewpoints to be discussed frankly and openly.
The sad fact, though, is that I currently don’t feel I can express my rather moderate viewpoints on homosexuality with most groups at Yale. Thirteen months after the Shepard slaying, it is truly tragic that so little has changed.
Alex Taylor’s column originally appeared in Wednesday’s Yale Daily News.