This letter is for Drew and Ose, the winners of this year’s Spirit of Matthew award. This letter is for the students of Parkland and Aurora and Las Vegas. The LGBTQ+ youth of Orlando. The youth of the Black Lives Matter movement. The young advocates all over the country who are fighting for a world they believe in. The countless students who have had the drive, the passion, and the tenacity to do this work in between SAT study sessions. Those of you who do this work because it’s more than a calling — it’s a way of life.
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You are saving lives by raising your voices. You have begun ages after I first set foot in front of a podium to enact similar change. Many of you weren’t even born when Matt Shepard, my son, was killed in one of the earliest antigay hate crimes to shake up America.
This was 20 years ago, when our family suffered a loss that the world shared with us through the media. It was the first of many somber Octobers to come, as the next several Junes and Februaries may feel for you.
But many people stood up, joined us in this fight against bigotry following Matthew’s murder, and worked toward our collective goal of making the world more fair and just for people who are different. The country and the world stood with us, and have continued to stand with us for nearly two decades now.
Still, don’t let that past line confuse you. There have been many adversaries to the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s work. It’s odd to think that anybody could possibly oppose a mission of erasing hate. But we all know that these people exist. It’s only the mode of their existence that has changed over the past two decades. Today, they tweet instead of sending postcards. They spread misinformation on Facebook instead of writing letters.
In America, all types of us are experiencing the awakening of a collective grief and outrage that countless decades of cruelty and exclusion have built up in our marginalized communities, and among our allies and loved ones. We’re seeing that collective outrage find its way back into the mainstream today. From the rolling back of Title IX obligations for trans youth (to be able to use the bathroom of their choice in school) and bakers denying cakes to gay couples to the repeated horror of mass shootings and the day-to-day atrocities that may or may not make the evening news, it’s impossible to ignore that certain communities are being targeted. During this time, me and my loved ones think of Matt, who came to represent, in his own way, many people who were discriminated against or whose lives were stolen too soon.
My biggest piece of advice would be to honor your causes and your friends, but don’t forget to be young. Take the time to enjoy the life you’re fighting to live. Also, don’t become discouraged when change doesn’t happen overnight. This is a marathon, not a sprint. It took us nearly a decade to pass the Shepard-Byrd Act. And now there are new names to carry on. Like Trayvon Martin.
The work you’re doing is impressive and important. The work you’ve done to help erase hate in your communities — whatever form that may take — has given the veteran activists among us a renewed strength for this fight. Bolstered by love and determination, the thundering cry for justice, and the support that the youth put forward into the world, we will all persevere.
So thank you for carrying the torch and lighting your own flames.
Together, we can’t lose.
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