Last spring, the Exponent published a series of interviews to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists. This semester, we are continuing the series with interviews regarding the legacy of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student at the University of Wyoming who was the victim of hate crimes that, in the end, cost him his life. This week’s interview was with Jason Roth, the president of The Alliance.
When and how did you first learn about Matthew Shepard?
“I came out when I was in college, so I didn’t know much about LGBTQ issues and topics before then. It was October 2016 when I first heard about the case. It was mentioned at an Alliance meeting.
At that point, I was starting to get more involved with LGBTQ issues. I started following different things on Facebook and such. I decided to do a little more research, and I watched a documentary that went through everything. I watched it with my partner, and the documentary was very emotional. It does a really good job explaining what we think he could have been feeling, and the pain he could have felt during that time. It was very tragic.”
What do you believe to be Shepard’s legacy?
“A lot of people realized that maybe we needed to start encouraging inclusivity in communities and creating the dialogue between people. It’s a tragedy that it [Shepard’s murder] had to happen, but it helped us start conversations to advance LGBTQ rights and to realize that, at the end of the day, just because I am gay does not mean I am much different than someone who isn’t.
I was recently reading an article about Wyoming, and they are still having a lot of issues with these topics. It has been 20 years, and they have not passed very many pro-gay laws. They’re still not very inclusive towards LGBTQ individuals. Wyoming is considered the ‘inclusive state’ because they were the first to allow women to vote. It is very interesting that they are still considered the inclusive state, but they have one of the worst records for LGBTQ inclusivity for all of the states in America.”
Why do you believe it is important to share Shepard’s story?
“I think it is a mixture of both sharing the story about Shepard and the information about laws being put in place. I don’t think talking about law a, b, c is helpful because that is boring and not many people will care.
If you just have the emotional side, people can get caught up in those emotions and might not know what to do with them. So, if you explain the story and bring that emotional component in with the law side, people become more involved and attached to the story.”
In what ways do you think the Alliance embodies Shepard’s legacy?
“I would say in many ways we are continuing the fight that the murder of Matthew Shepard started. When Shepard was murdered, a lot of people got angry and upset and started to try and get LGBTQ rights at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.
I believe the Alliance is still continuing that in various ways. We have our events, like Rainbow Rave, that are out front to try and educate people and get them to learn more about us. We are continuing the legacy through activism and education by us existing and having those meetings where anyone is welcome to stop in and learn more.”
What do you believe is left out of the dialogue about LGBTQ topics?
“When you look at LGBTQ, most people automatically think of lesbian and gay individuals, and that is because they are the group that has been the most prominent in media and people ‘know them the best.’ LGBTQ involves the whole spectrum of genders and sexualities.
All those that are misplaced and forgotten about – transgender, non-binary, gender fluid, asexual, demisexual – there are so many different identities individuals have. For the longest time, it has just been about the gay rights movement, even within the movement towards equality for LGBTQ individuals.
A lot of people in 2010, when gay marriage was passed, were like ‘yay, we’re done.’ No, we are not. There is still a lot that needs to be worked on. We often overlook everyone else in that spectrum of gender and sexuality.”
Being president of The Alliance, what do you do to spread awareness about LGBTQ topics?
“One of our biggest standing events that has been going on for quite some time is the Rainbow Rave Conference and Drag Show and this year we are partnering with the Doyle Center. The conference is where we get the educational component where we educate individuals on topics of gender and sexuality.
This year we are bringing in a person to talk about ballroom culture. It is quite interesting how that was one of the only safe spaces queer people could feel included. We are also having Drag Queens do a workshop about drag 101.
We have our weekly meetings that everyone is welcome to attend. Every other week we try to do some sort of educational component to learn about different topics within the LGBTQ community. In two weeks, we will be doing intersex awareness. We always try to encourage people to come to the meetings.”
How can students and staff help to eliminate some stigmas surrounding LGBTQ topics?
“To help fight the stigmas, people need to educate themselves. Attend an Ally Training or a Transgender Topics meeting. The Doyle Center has a few more this semester, so attend one of those because it will help people to get a baseline knowledge of LGBTQ issues.
For professors, it is important to have something in your class to promote inclusivity and to discourage hateful notations, speaking and language. The division of diversity and inclusion created a saying that can be put in a syllabus that says something like ‘we will include anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, etc.’ That is a really great thing to insert into a professor’s syllabus because it will let students know up front, ‘I don’t want any hateful speech in this classroom.’
I also think posting some sort of rainbow sticker or the ally symbol in your office space is a great thing for someone to do to help an LGBTQ individual know that you are an ally.”