REUTERS – Wyoming mother an enduring figure for gay rights

Wyoming mother an enduring figure for gay rights

By Edith Honan
NEW YORK | Wed Feb 20, 2013 3:21pm EST
(Reuters) – The mother who championed gay rights after her son was tied to a fence and beaten to death couldn’t bear to sit through the play that has helped keep his memory alive for the nearly 15 years since his murder.

But this weekend, at the opening of a double-billing of Moises Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” and “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Judy Shepard – seated in an aisle seat to allow for an easy escape – soldiered through the entire five-hour production, which recalls the story of Matthew Shepard’s death in 1998.

“I just really didn’t feel I needed to watch it because I lived it. And so many of the scenes bring back such horrific memories. I’ve never felt comfortable crying in public,” Shepard said just before the Saturday performance. “It’s been 15 years. I should be able to do this now.”

Shepard made it through with the help of hugs from well-wishers at the intermissions.

Kaufman, a playwright and director who leads the Tectonic Theater Project, recalled the Shepard murder as a watershed moment that helped create a generation of activists and energize “straight allies” to the cause of gay rights.

“All of a sudden we had an image, we had an event, that operated as a catalyst,” said Kaufman, a Venezuelan native who lives in New York.

The original play was born from the question of why Shepard’s murder resonated more than other hate crimes, Kaufman said. The play has been staged more than 1,000 times.

Ten years after Shepard’s death, Kaufman and Tectonic returned to Laramie, Wyoming, to produce an epilogue and to interview Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, who are serving life sentences for the murder.

Nine U.S. states have legalized same-sex marriage, and in March the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage under federal law as being between a man and a woman, and whether Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage, should be struck down.

Henderson and McKinney confessed to meeting the 21-year-old at a Laramie bar on the night of Oct 6-7, pretending to be gay and offering him a ride home, with the intent to rob him. They grew enraged after Shepard made a sexual advance, they said, and took him to a desolate area in the outskirts of town, tied him to a fence and repeatedly struck him in the head with a handgun.

Shepard was close to death when he was discovered 18 hours later and he died in a Colorado hospital on October 12. In her 2010 book, “The Meaning of Matthew,” Judy Shepard wrote that while she was at her son’s side, she was barely aware of the rallies by thousands of well-wishers in cities across the country.

Judy Shepard, who is soft-spoken and shy despite her years in the limelight, says she is a reluctant advocate. But she has become a forceful voice for gay rights and a sort of mother figure for gay teens turned away by their own families.

“Many of us feel that Judy is the mother we never had. But it goes way beyond that,” Kaufman said. “It’s a story of a person who was put in an untenable situation and got the skills to triumph in that situation.”

Shepard, who still lives in Wyoming, heads the Matthew Shepard Foundation and has fought for gay rights in her home state and for a federal hate crimes bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2009 with Shepard at his side.

“I did what people didn’t expect me to do, which was not go away,” she said. “As a straight person, I have a gravitas that someone in the gay community saying the things that I say would not have.”

She said she has been frustrated that change in Wyoming, also the setting of the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, has come slowly. The state has no hate crimes law and this year the legislature rejected a gay marriage bill and a domestic partnership bill for same-sex couples.

Before the performance, a man who said he was about the same age as Matthew Shepard would be now tearfully thanked Shepard for her advocacy and said gay people “could not have had a better angel and a better mother.”

Shepard’s eyes also filled with tears, but she quickly regained her composure, saying: “This is what happens when you piss off somebody’s mom.” (Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Leslie Gevirtz)

Reuters – Soccer-Gay rights groups say U.S. sport reaching ‘tipping point’

Soccer-Gay rights groups say U.S. sport reaching ‘tipping point’

By Simon Evans | Reuters – Fri, Feb 15, 2013 6:16 PM EST
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Feb 15 (Reuters) – The decision by American soccer player Robbie Rogers to come out as gay on Friday was hailed by rights groups who believe sport in the Unites States is reaching a “tipping point” in accepting homosexual players.
The 25-year-old former Leeds United and U.S. international wrote a blog post about his struggle keeping his sexuality a secret and that he is leaving the game.
“Robbie Rogers demonstrated enormous courage coming out and it’s great to see the overwhelming positive response from other players around the sport,” Brian Ellner of Athletes Ally, a group that fights to end homophobia in sports, told Reuters.
“It’s clear that the culture of sports in transforming rapidly. We’re at a tipping point.”
No player in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association or National Hockey League has ever come out as gay while playing.
The most prominent ‘coming out’ in professional sports in recent times was Puerto Rican featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz, who last October announced he was gay.
Rogers’s statement, however, comes just over two weeks after a high-profile discussion of homophobia dominated headlines in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver caused a media storm after saying he would not welcome a gay team mate into the locker room.
Culliver’s comments were roundly criticised by a number of other NFL players, most notably Brendon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker on the opposing Super Bowl team, the Baltimore Ravens.
Ayanbadejo, who has been a public supporter of gay marriage rights, said that many players may agree with Culliver but that the tide was turning.
“I’d say 50 percent of (NFL players) think like Culliver, 25 percent of the people think like me, 25 percent don’t necessarily agree with all the things I agree with but they’re accepting,” he said.
“It’s a fight. It’s an uphill battle. But we went from 95 percent who think like Culliver, so we’re winning the fight.”
There was a further example of changing attitudes this week when Kobe Bryant of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers chastised a fan on Twitter for using a homophobic slur.
Bryant himself had been fined $100,000 for using an anti-gay comment at a referee during a game in 2011.
Challenged by one follower on Twitter about his own earlier behavior, Bryant said: “That wasn’t cool and was ignorant on my part. I own it and learn from it and expect the same from others.”
Patrick Burke, co-founder of the group You Can Play, which campaigns against homophobia and for equality for gays athletes, believes players in the top North American leagues will soon start to announce they are gay.
“I think we have hit the turning point in the sports world for sure. The majority of professional athletes are supportive and do not care if one of their team mates or opponents is gay, it makes no difference to them,” Burke told Reuters.
“We have had over 100 professional hockey players stand up with us and say that they would be happy to support openly gay team mates.
“We will have an openly gay NHL player within the next year or so and I think the other sports will follow suit.” (Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)

Reuters – In Valentine vote, Illinois Senate approves gay marriage

In Valentine vote, Illinois Senate approves gay marriage

By Joanne von Alroth
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois | Thu Feb 14, 2013 4:12pm EST
(Reuters) – The Illinois state Senate approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage on Thursday in a Valentine’s Day vote spearheaded by Democrats, as gay couples around the country used the romantic day to dramatize their quest for the right to marry.

The Illinois Senate, which is heavily Democratic, voted 34-21 to advance the measure to the House in President Barack Obama’s home state. The fate of the bill in the state’s lower chamber remains uncertain.

Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has promised to sign any bill legalizing gay marriage, which would make Illinois the 10th state to legalize same-sex nuptials, in addition to the District of Columbia. It would also become the first Midwestern state to approve same-sex marriage through legislation. Iowa’s Supreme Court legalized such marriages there in 2009.

Obama has encouraged the drive to legalize gay marriage, authorizing a White House statement recently saying that if he were still in the Illinois legislature, he would vote for it.

The Illinois drive to legalize gay marriage coincided with a national campaign by a coalition of gay rights groups to highlight the issue on Valentine’s Day.

As part of what they call “Freedom to Marry Week,” same-sex couples will request marriage licenses in 18 places around the country, including a number of states where same sex-marriage is not legal.

“These laws are unjust and immoral, and we are confronting those laws head-on across the country,” said Heather Cronk, managing director of GetEQUAL, a gay rights group.

Although the Illinois House, like the state’s Senate, is controlled by Democrats, the fate of the legislation in the lower chamber remains a question mark.

House Republican Leader Tom Cross said he was not sure whether it would gain Republican support. There also was concern that some black Democratic legislators from Chicago could oppose the measure because of pressure from African-American Christian pastors.

Some black ministers have joined Illinois Catholic bishops in expressing strong opposition to legalization.

And within the Democratic party, gay marriage is still a divisive topic.

Two Democratic state lawmakers broke with their party leaders on Thursday and introduced measures in both chambers of the legislature that call for an amendment to the state constitution to enshrine marriage as between a man and a woman.

(Writing by Greg McCune; editing by Matthew Lewis, Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)