Bil Browning

National Coming Out Day & the Deaths of Matthew Shepard & Frank Kameny

Filed By Bil Browning | October 15, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Frank Kameny, Jim Toevs, Matthew Shepard, National Coming Out Day

Note from Bil: We only run one guest post per day because we always want to keep the focus on our own contributors. Since we get a lot of guest post submissions, we're usually pre-scheduled several days in advance and turn down the majority of folks who submit proposed posts. Shepard-Kameny.jpgSometimes a timely guest post submission comes along that should be highlighted but can't be forced into the calendar due to previously scheduled posts. This is one of those cases.

I'm posting Jim Toev's submitted post even though we've already published our guest post for the day. Since we're currently scheduled through October 25th, by the time I could get this up it would lose a lot of its punch. To skirt the rules a bit, I'm posting Jim's post myself with this note because I think you should read what he has to say.

If you're unaware, Jim Toevs co-founded the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission. In 1992, Jim was the Democratic nominee for Congress against then-closeted Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe. He resides in Alamos, Sonora, Mexico. A 70 year old veteran of the fight for LGBT rights, he finds the connection between the recent death of one of the first gay rights activists, Frank Kameny, and Matthew Shepard, the young man who's violent murder inspired the recently passed federal hate crimes law.

What's the connection? National Coming Out Day.

Jim's thoughts are after the jump.

At first glance, a more unlikely duo than Matthew Shepard and Frank Cameny is hard to imagine. Yet, both made vastly different and incredibly important contributions towards the achievement of Full Legal LBGT Equality in our lifetime. Matthew with his death at 12:53 AM, October 12, 1998, at the age of 21, and Frank Kameny with his trailblazing, activist, long life of 86 years, which ended this past Monday, October 11, 2011.

The proximity of their deaths to National Coming Out Day is a striking coincidence, to say the least. National Coming Out Day was the creation of two other heroes of the LBGT Equality Movement who are no longer with us: Jean O'Leary, head of the National Gay Rights Advocates; and Rob Eichberg, Founder of The Experience Weekend. Rob and Jean had the vision to see that GLBT people could never hope to achieve equality from the closet. We had to be out and proud, not only to educate others, but to fulfill our own need for self-esteem and emotional wholeness.

The first NCOD was held October 11, 1983. Thanks to the efforts of Rob Eichberg, on that day, I was one of three members of our community who were featured in a front page article in USA Today as out members of our community. In 1983, coming out in a national newspaper was a big deal. It is a testament to how far we have come in the struggle for equality, that this year, 2011, NCOD passed almost unnoticed compared to the sensation it created in 1983.

Matthew Shepard's death at age 21 caused the greatest media firestorm ever experienced at the passing of a gay man. Given the circumstances of his death, Matthew inspired millions of LBGT folks and their allies all over Planet Earth to say, "No more!" Legions of people grasped the vision of National Coming Out Day and decided to be silent no longer.

Matthew Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie who was beaten by two homophobic young men he met in a cowboy bar, and was left to die by a fence in a remote area outside of town. He was young, cute, vulnerable, and if he had lived a typical young gay male life, there is a good chance that he would never have been particularly noteworthy.

However, the media coverage of the vigil at the hospital where Matthew was clinging to life, his funeral where Angels appeared to shelter his family and mourners from Fred Phelps and company, and the subsequent trials of his murderers, touched the hearts of millions.

The Laramie Project, an award winning play about Matthew and the town where he died permeated the consciousness of millions more people of all ages: in high schools, universities, live theatre, and television. As sad as it is to say, it is doubtful that Matthew could ever have done as much for the Equality Movement in his life, as he did in his death.

Conversely, it is hard to imagine anyone making more of a contribution to LBGT Equality than Frank Kameny did in his long and productive life. More than any other one individual, Frank Kameny was truly the Father of the modern GLBT Civil Rights Movement.

From the time he was fired from a government job in 1957 for being a homosexual, up until the day of his death, Frank Kameny was the quintessential gay rights activist. Seldom does one person have the opportunity to change the world in his lifetime, but Frank Kameny was one of those people.

So what are the lessons we can learn from the lives and deaths of these heroes? Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that appearances, circumstances, and age have no effect on the impact which one person can have in helping to achieve Full Legal LBGT Equality in our lifetime. Being out and proud does more to banish fear and shame from our lives than anything else we can do. Silence does equal death.

My job as a 70 year old gay man is to keep throwing rocks in the pond by not letting things pass. We never know where the ripples from our actions may end up, or whose heart they may touch. The example of Frank Kameny, Matthew Shepard, Jean O'Leary, Rob Eichberg, and legions of others let's us know that we are not alone, and that Full Legal Equality in our lifetime is assured if we all do our part.


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jimtoevs@yahoo.com | October 16, 2011 3:11 PM

Thanks, Bil! Your choice of the photos of Frank and Matthew reinforce the premise of the article in such a beautiful way.

Jim

Stonewall Girl Stonewall Girl | October 18, 2011 1:15 AM

I had the honor to meet Frank Kameny at the White House in 2009. I can only begin to understand the pleasure he must have experienced by being welcomed there after being treated so poorly by his country. His smile was unforgettable. That same afternoon, President Obama came over to Judy Shepard to tell her he was going to give Sen Reid a call to move the Hate Crimes legislation named in honor and memory of her son.

Jim, thanks for mentioning the two...it brought up a positive memory for me that connected both of them.

jimtoevs@yahoo.com | October 18, 2011 3:41 PM

Thanks, Babs. Your recent elevation to the Democratic National Committee Executive Committee is just one more example of how far we have come, albeit, we still have a long way to go to acheived Full Legal LBGT Equality in our lifetime.