Editors' note: Brian Winfield is the Equality Florida Communications Director. In March of 2007, Ryan Skipper was stabbed 19 times and left to die on a dirt road in rural Polk County, Florida. He was only 25. His killers drove around in his blood-soaked car, bragging how they had killed a gay man.
A jury convicted one of Ryan Skipper's two killers of first-degree murder yesterday. It's all over the evening news. My how times change. Today was the second of two trials, both resulting in a life sentence for each of Ryan's killers. Three young Florida men whose lives are ended in one way or another.
There is no joy, no celebration, no closure, but there was justice and that's something.
It's been nearly two years and eight months since Ryan was stabbed 19 times and left for dead on the side of a Wahneta dirt road in Polk County. I've grown close to his family since then. So much so, I sometimes forget that I've never met Ryan. I feel like I know him as well as I know his friends and family members.
Maybe that just goes to show how much we carry our loved ones with us.
These are such amazing people.
Ryan's friends reached out to Equality Florida in the days and weeks after his murder because they saw an injustice and refused to sit idly by while the media-seeking Polk County Sheriff recklessly blamed Ryan, in part, for his own death and soiled the one thing he had left - his reputation. Accusations were stated as facts - it didn't matter that the killers were the only source and they would say anything to minimize their atrocity.
In the shadow of those unfounded accusations, most of the media toed the line and stayed far away from Ryan's story. I doubt we would even know the name "Matthew Shepard" if Grady Judd had been Sheriff in Laramie, WY.
In the following days, Equality Florida worked with dozens of people who never met Ryan but were moved by his story and the love of his friends and family. Within two weeks we had organized vigils in 14 cities to memorialize Ryan and to call attention to the hate violence that took his young life. Over 1,000 people came out to say, "No more." No more senseless killings, no more gay-bashings, no more treating LGBT people as less than equal, and no more silence in the face of such violent hate crimes.
Because of Ryan's friends and their dedication to preserving his reputation, the Sheriff's office was forced to retract those careless statements. In a Lakeland Ledger interview , Sheriff's Chief W. J. Martin acknowledged that what was said was based solely on comments from the two suspects who were, "trying to minimize their involvement to make themselves look better."
What amazes me most is Ryan's family - Pat and Lynn Mulder , Ryan's mom and step-dad, and Damien Skipper, Ryan's big brother. In perhaps the deepest despair in human experience, this family said, "No more." No more bad can come from Ryan's existence. They knew how precious and good Ryan was and demanded of the world that something good come out of this tragedy. And the world responded...
Ryan's senseless murder has spawned several non-profit organizations, including the Ryan Keith Skipper Foundation and Gay American Heros. The talented Vicki Nantz has documented Ryan's story in a short film - ACCESSORY TO MURDER: Our Culture's Complicity in the Death of Ryan Skipper. The list goes on and on.
Lynn, Pat and Damien have worked tirelessly to educate people about anti-LGBT hate crimes and the devastating impact they have on entire communities. But they didn't stop there. They've traveled to Tallahassee and recently even the White House to lobby and spread their message of treating our fellow human beings with respect, maybe even love. Whether speaking to two or 2,000, they make sure people know Ryan's story.
What was most clear yesterday is that all this hard work continues to pay off and is making the world a better place. During the course of this trial, our nation passed the first Federal legal protections for LGBT people and Damien stood at the President's side to celebrate the victory. The media covered the verdict in force - having set aside those unfounded accusations. And while Sheriff Judd has never offered an apology, we have to believe it's ego and not a lack of understanding that prevents such healing.
I stood among heroes yesterday and I am humbled. With Ryan's friends, family, Vicki and her partner Mary Meeks, the tireless Rev. Hunt and others gathered, we watched and appreciated that the wheels of justice surely turn.
With the final verdict in and justice served, we had a hard time leaving. We stood there united by the experience but also by the knowledge that, because of Ryan, we'd created something more.