The big failure of my trip back across the country in August was not the part where I got stopped by the police. It was the fact that in a fearful reaction to being stopped by the police, I got lost in Laramie, Wyoming, trying to look for the place where Matthew Shepard died.
I had started my trip off by going to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis with Faiqa, a place I really believe should be a strongly encouraged elective for all of us, especially those of us who were born after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on that site. At the end of the tour, the curators have put together an exhibit of other groups in our culture who bear that terrible word of "oppressed" -- minorities of all colors and ethnicities, gender identifications, and sexual orientations.
I cried and cried my way through that museum, and it has not left me yet, the way I felt. It is creepy, and unnerving, and yet so important to stand in the spot from which James Earl Ray fired the shots, to look through thick glass into the room where Dr. King last hung out, to read stories of incredible bravery from people who sat at lunch counters and walked into schools and wouldn't leave stores or vehicles or even specific seats on vehicles, because they were so damned tired of being not just second best, but not treated like human beings at all.
The audio and the film clips blew my mind. And I wondered -- because there is no way I could put myself in the shoes of the people of color who did these things, just not earthly way I could imagine -- if I'd have had the strength, as an ally, to do what some, but not enough, white people did back then. It scared me to feel like I wasn't sure.
When I knew that I was going to drive through Wyoming, I couldn't stop thinking about Laramie, or Matthew Shepard. I'd seen the play, The Laramie Project, many years ago, and it wrecked me. Probably a lot of us know the story by now, that Matthew was at a bar and got messed up with some guys who chatted him up and then eventually took him out to some pasture to beat the crap out of him until he was dead, because he was gay.
I still close my eyes when I type it. It just makes no sense.
Vote however you want, pray however you want, be physically and emotionally and/or contractually involved with whomever you want. I genuinely do not care. But to kill a person, for a sexual preference, for any preference, for any reason, defies explanation or excuse, obviously.
Anyway, after my little run-in with some troopers, I was nervous about the wild, wild west. I had googled around and tried to find some specifics, but what I found wasn't very specific. It also came to my attention in the commentary that the people of the town where Matthew died had gone to some efforts to camouflage the site of his murder, mostly through street name changes, and I'm telling you, Google Maps failed. A well-meaning person with a Wiki and bad directions indicated where the spot was, anyway, from I-80, with the caveat that anyone who went there should be careful and look out for any pushback from the people who lived nearby (This is one person's opinion. I have no idea if that would have happened or not. Mary Mother of God could live there, I have no idea, but please know when one is traveling alone across the country, there are some things to take a bit more seriously.)
I just wanted to go by there and say I'd been there, really. I wanted to pay respects. It felt very, very important to me. I insanely wanted to say to the air that I was sorry, that you can change street names but you can't change facts.
And no, it doesn't really matter, if a person goes to a place or not. I can I'm sorry sitting here. I can talk to my grandma and not go to the cemetery. But one of my leftovers from Catholicism is ritual, and marking a spot. It's saying that something shouldn't have ever happened to a person, in the place where it happened. It's shedding a tear and leaving a flask, maybe. It's some kind of recognition.
But I was afraid, that's just true. I didn't trust my own safety at that point, or the sun to stay in the sky or a police officer or -- even worse -- some homeowner with an attitude to have anything better to do, even if I am unfailingly respectful of private property. So I stopped and dilly-dallyed at a Wendy's, and noted that damn, there are a lot of police cars in this town, and I drove by the University and the directions started to fade to black and none of the signs said what they were supposed to and just a bit out of town, I decided that this was probably not going to happen.
Dumb, pointless, thwarted, whatever. I was just really sorry about it.
I do not have fond memories of Spirit Days in high school. I didn't have a terrible high school experience, but I've never been into forced merriment, put it that way. I also didn't know who I was then, at all, or what the person I was supposed to love was supposed to look like.
I knew shunning and shame and embarrassment, for the things I did and said and the things I was assumed to be. I learned what it meant to tacitly apologize for myself, to shove down my natural inclinations of personality and behavior to suit my culture, in all senses of that word. I learned what it meant to have other people attempt to define me, to tear me down, lessons I began to learn in junior high, really.
I also wasn't always nice. There is one person I would like to apologize to, now, if I could find her, which I can't, and anyway, it's no guarantee she'd want to hear from me anyway. Our words stick, for good or bad.
In many ways I haven't changed a whole lot, except now I know what I wish someone had told me then: that it is up to me to define me, as terrifying as that may be. It is up to me to identify who I am and who I love. It is my job to speak out, to identify atrocities, ask why they happen, why we allow them, and what our response to them will be. It is up to me to say that each human being on the planet is made how we are made, and in our particular combination of blood and bone and chemistry, heart and soul and spirit, it is no one's right, not anyone's, to judge or harm us for the very state of our existence, as long as it is not harming anyone else.
It is hard to know that at 12, or 16, or 24. It is still tough, some days, at 41, but it is easier. And so to sit by and not reach out, and back, and through the complicated garbage of four decades and say "Who you are is fine. Her or him or them or whatever, figure it out, you are safe," is a responsibility. And to say, "Leave him the hell alone. Who do you think you are?" is the equal and opposite.
It is our responsibility not to allow "bullying" in the context of how LGBTQ teens are treated to become another buzzword or a societal given. It is to constantly ask how it can stop, to demand evolution, to ask for accountability, and to celebrate progress.
I will wear purple today, in what could feel like a frail offering to anyone, particularly any young person, who suffers needlessly, but is really like lighting a candle or walking a labyrinth and saying names over and over. It's a ritual and an act of hope. It is important because there should be no more Matthew Shepards or Trevors or Taylors or babies yet to come who are mentally or physically abused because of who their minds and bodies tell them they are, who their soul (because that is where this comes from, really) tells them to love.
I'm okay with this Spirit Day.
Thank you to everyone who has ever and continues to listen to my story with an open heart and absolute acceptance.