by Ono Kono
Two decades ago, I was unaware of the struggle of LGBT people. Back then, I was a busy working Mom, juggling career and family. I cared about others, but I was asleep when it came to their plight. In 1998, my life was changed when a young man lost his life, after he was beaten and left to die. The resultant trial of accused murderers of Mathew Shepard was made into a circus by a church leader and his followers of the Westborough Baptist Church.
I thank you Phelps clan for opening my heart to love, in spite of your hatred for my LGBT brothers and sisters. I saw the cruelty in your eyes, echoed by the pain in others who watched you. I don’t know what brought you down your path to hatred. I can only say, I thank you for being so open about it, but only because you helped me wake up to the horrid truth that people who hate still exist.
You claim the God of hatred, but I wonder whom you serve? Your legacy will always bear the fruit of hatred and ignorance, yet it is something you learned. I see your children echoing your hatred, and my heart aches for their beautiful innocence lost—their love will harden into the same abhorrence you hold in your heart. I rejoice for every one of them that manages to escape. I only pray for more refugees to leave your self-made prison of loathing, ignorance, and fear.
More importantly, I thank you Matthew Shepard, for opening my heart wide open and giving me awareness of the hatred that took your life. Your story changed me, it shook me to my core—a tragedy which still brings tears to my eyes as I type these words. Your tragic death made me find my voice, as I spoke to others about your plight. You made me a warrior in my small way of speaking out against the wrongs that are happening to homosexuals.
I watched your courageous mother take a stand for you and others like you, in the most tragic time of her life. She couldn’t save you, but she now fights to save others, none of which would have happened, but for you. I don’t know how she gets through her days, being a mother myself; I can’t even fathom losing my child, especially at the hands of hate-filled men. Your mother has filled the void with love for everyone. Now her fight includes my Lesbian daughter, who came out years after your death.
Without you, I may have continued my life in ignorance of the hatred leveled against you. You helped make me an ally for a minority, demonized for who they love. You helped me realize that not only those who call themselves Christians and picket openly against you, but even the “nice” Christians who hide behind the words of “love the sinner, hate the sin” further adding to the insults hurled at you—they don’t know love.
You helped me learn about God’s true love, and those who hold him in their hearts. I realize now, that it is those who truly love and accept you just as you were, are truly living what Jesus said when he commanded us to love one another. He didn’t give us any ifs, ands, or buts. He just told us to love him with all our hearts, and love each other. If he had been here in your lifetime, he would have proudly walked beside you. I can’t help but think you are walking with him now.
These tears falling down upon my cheeks 14 years later, they are mixed with sorrow over your young life removed too soon. Some of those tears are joy, because you helped wake many who were sleeping. I thank two families who have brought to light the hate and the love; both have paid a serious price. One family chose to walk away from their tragedy with love still in their hearts—they changed my life forever. I now have a voice; I speak out about the wrongs that happened to you then, and for all LGBTs who are just as much my human family, deserving the love, dignity, and respect as anyone, every day.
Rest in peace, Matthew Shepard; you’ve helped more people than you will ever know.
Top image by Debbie Teashon, bottom image by Liz Linder.
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