Sixteen years ago this week, a kind and gentle 21-year-old named Matthew Shepard clung to life in a Fort Collins, Colorado, hospital, his tiny body struggling in a losing fight against the beating, the torture and a freezing night of exposure lashed to a fence in rural Wyoming. He would die, of course, and become a martyr, transformative for millions who would avenge his hate-fueled murder by remembering it, telling his story and coming out of the closet because their grief and sense of injustice was too profound to hide from their friends, families, co-workers and, in Ellen DeGeneres’ case, audiences.
How hard it would have been for Shepard—or any of the rest of us, really—to imagine what this week would be like only 16 years later. To imagine the United States Supreme Court refusing to even hear the sanctimonious objections of the gay haters, so ridiculous and offensive had their rabble become. To imagine that another group of judges, taking their cue from that same high court stacked with Republican nominees, would invalidate Nevada’s gay marriage ban. To imagine that a conservative group demanding a stay of that decision would withdraw its petition one day after submitting it and make it possible to be legitimately married on the most heterosexist street on Earth, the Las Vegas Strip.
In the few years since I moved away from Las Vegas, there have been precious few times that my heart ached to be there as it does right now. Soon, images will flood the international media of happy couples lining up at the Marriage Bureau and then traipsing through casinos to wed atop the Eiffel Tower or in the elegance of the Wynn chapel. If there are any protesters, they’ll be so outnumbered by well-wishers and exuberant masses as to be irrelevant, overlooked and not newsworthy. Those horrible, pious busybodies—the ones who lied about us and scared large majorities of Nevada voters into “protecting the children” by denying us full purchase in the American dream—are today no more credible than the doomsday cultists who picket the Strip on New Year’s Eve.
I’ve written enough about the shame of those votes in 2000 and 2002 to write discrimination into Nevada’s constitution. I’ve scolded the people of this state, I’ve documented just what a terrible economic and moral decision it was. And even this week, I found it within me to snark one last time on Twitter as I “congratulated” Sin City for being the 31st or so to the punch.
But Nevada has paid a dear, dear price for that vote. A whole generation of gay couples went elsewhere to be married, booking hotel rooms and floral arrangements and tuxedo rentals where they were allowed. Thousands of couples who would have loved to wed in the Marriage Capital of the World have already done so in places as obvious as California and Hawaii but also as unlikely as Iowa and Utah. The bounty for being available to fulfill such pent-up demand has already been reaped, table scraps left for the stragglers.
That doesn’t, however, prevent me from taking in this sweet, sweet moment from afar, from Michigan where the matter remains unsettled and in the hands of yet another federal appeals court. It doesn’t keep me from wishing I could be in the living room of my most beloved gay friends, Walt and Terry, to marvel at the images that will dance across their TV just as we did when it happened elsewhere and when the first black president was inaugurated. Walt is 89, Terry is 70, I turn 42 next week. They never seriously thought this could happen in their lifetimes; I certainly didn’t think it would happen this soon.
I long to see the satisfaction on the faces of state Sen. David Parks, Nevada’s gay Moses, and Lee Plotkin, one of our original white-collar agitators, now that this battle has finally won. Won! So little in politics and culture is ever fully, completely, unambiguously “won” as has been this fight for the right to marry. This nation continues to debate the Voting Rights Act, what to do with undocumented immigrants, how to pay women properly for their work. But other than some pathetic, ignorant corners of America that will be swept along soon enough, marriage equality is a fait accompli—and hardly a controversial matter anymore.
This certainly isn’t the end of homophobia, to be sure, but my God it’s a moment to savor like no other in my lifetime. Was it only seven years ago that Miles and I held a “commitment ceremony” in that fabulous suite at the Palms, “officiated” by a rabbi who choked up because he’d never presided over such a “wedding”? Was it only 16 years ago that the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association held its convention at the Alexis Park Resort because no Strip resort would even bid on hosting us? How quaint all of that seems now.
This historical whiplash is exhilarating. I brim with pride and envy. I told my father the night I came out to him, Christmas Eve in 1992 when I was 20, that “we” gays would triumph, that society was about to transform. I said it to soothe him, for he worried this would create distance between us and make my life so much more difficult. Neither was true and I was right, but his fears were based on a historic reality and mine on youthful optimism that, against all odds, turned out to be warranted.
Miles and I no longer live in Las Vegas, and we already had a (legally) faux wedding there anyhow. We always insisted, as a matter of principle, that we would only get legally married when we could do so in the state where we made our home, so we’ll wait some more and fall deeper in love with Michigan as we do. Nevada will have to suffice as the place we found one another and where, in 2009, we got a domestic partnership, the least romantic and most bureaucratic way to bind a couple ever invented but all the Silver State afforded us at the time. Someday, we’ll show off that sad piece of paper that looks strangely like an award or diploma to a baffled future generation, a relic as alien and disturbing as those grainy photos of “colored-only” water fountains.
It’s a bummer that Miles and I aren’t there to witness or partake, but it’s not tragic. What’s tragic is the fact that young Matthew Shepard, who went to a bar one night and got the shit kicked out of him and never knew he’d become a legend, isn’t here. That hate and misunderstanding stole him and so many other men and women from this Earth. It forced so many to hide and lie. It destroyed so many families and drove so many to suicide. It left so many couples who spent full lives together penniless and apart in the end because they were legal strangers.
The face of Matthew Shepard, it is said, was streaked with frozen tears when he was found. That detail always slays me. He was despondent, desperate and dying. I don’t believe in God or heaven, so I don’t believe he is in a “better place” or looking down on us or whatever other clichés tend to apply. But I do believe that in this moment of revelry, he and all that he represents must be remembered. They are the cost paid for the victory at hand.
When you see those gleeful images this week, when you congratulate friends and strangers, when you proceed into a world entirely unchanged for non-gay people but irrevocably better for gays, think about all of that. Appreciate what this means the next time you get down on this country for its failure to live up to its creed as fully as it should. I’m only 42, and an entire civil rights battle—complete with a plague, a hateful wave of legislation and a sudden reversal of public opinion and jurisprudence of unprecedented proportions—went from conception to fulfillment in (hopefully) half a lifetime.
I can only imagine what the world will be like in another 40 years. A nation where race really is irrelevant because demographics and education will make it thus? A world where technology makes it possible to feed, clothe and care for the poor and sick at minimal cost? A time when bitter enemies finally recognize the humanity of one another and stop murdering each other over land or ideology?
All of that is far-fetched, Pollyanna. And, also, attainable. That is the hope of this triumph. Marriage equality for homosexuals, too, was impossible once very recently. And now it’s real. What’s next?