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By Emily Hecht-McGowan
“Rest gently. You are safe. Welcome home.”
On Friday, October 26th, Bishop Gene Robinson spoke these words directly to Matthew Shepard, 20 years after his death, at the Washington National Cathedral. I joined thousands of mourners for Matthew’s interment service, where his ashes now rest in the safety and sanctity of the church he loved so dearly.
I was 24 years old and had just started dating my first girlfriend in the fall of 1998 — a few weeks before Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in an anti-gay hate crime. I was not yet out of the closet. I shouldn’t have been afraid to come out: I was raised in a socially liberal family and living in Washington, D.C., a progressive city with a thriving gay community even then. But Matthew’s murder shone a harsh light on the brutal realities of the world just beyond my own.
It was frightening to see.
Twenty years later, after Matthew’s service, my wife and I stood in our kitchen, reflecting on how far we’d come since those dark days two decades ago. We are living a life neither of us ever thought possible — married with two amazing daughters and living authentically in a community that supports and affirms us. We are blessed beyond belief with good fortune.
And even in this current climate, which so often feels divisive and regressive, where it seems as though the gains we’ve made for the LGBTQ community are slowly (or not so slowly) being chipped away, I walked away from Matthew’s service uplifted by my community, with a sense of hopefulness for our future.
That hopefulness was shattered the very next morning after a man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire in the middle of Shabbat morning services, killing eleven people and wounding six more. The contrast struck me: As my beloved LGBTQ community was coming together to remember and lay to rest a violent hate crime from two decades ago, my beloved Jewish community was under attack.
This vile act of anti-Semitism is yet another instance in a string of violent hate crimes to sweep the country over the last two years. I am not naïve enough to think this kind of hate is new, or brought about by one political figure or political party alone. Hate and bias will, unfortunately, always exist. But the last two years have created a space for this kind of hatred to grow unrestrained, emboldening some not simply to express bias, bigotry, and hatred proudly and out in the open, but to express it violently.
This climate has had a profoundly negative impact on our young people — particularly on our LGBTQ youth. We already know that LGBTQ youth are five times more likely than their straight peers to attempt suicide and six times as likely to report high levels of depression. But perhaps more startling is that the Trevor Project’s suicide prevention hotline received the highest call volumes in its history the day after the 2016 election, and then again on the day Donald Trump tweeted about banning transgender patriots from serving in the U.S. military.
Our young people are more at risk now than ever before. We must be visible and vocal in our affirmation, support, and acceptance of them. We must be advocates for our most vulnerable youth. The Biden Foundation’s As You Are campaign seeks to do exactly this: To underscore the importance of family and community acceptance — and the very real dangers of rejection — in the lives of LGBTQ young people.
The As You Are campaign seeks to continue the work Judy and Dennis Shepard began in the wake of their son’s death. As Judy said during a recent interview at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, parents of gay children particularly asked them to convey the message about how important it is to love your child, no matter what.
“I think that’s really what we’ve done,” she said. “As parents of a gay child who we loved and accepted no matter what, to try to work with other families to get them to do the same…to bring the community together… to understand and to love and protect one another.”
As part of As You Are, we’ve collected almost 500 stories of both rejection and acceptance from across the country — stories from LGBTQ young people, parents, educators, social service providers, coaches, siblings, allies, and friends. You can view those stories here. We are empowering LGBTQ young people and those who love them with tools to navigate the pathway to acceptance. And if you know of additional resources or organizations doing good work on behalf of our LGBTQ community and those who love them, please let us know so we can share it with our growing AYA community.
Every young person deserves to live authentically, to be loved, to be affirmed, and to be accepted.
You are safe. Welcome home. As You Are.
Emily Hecht-McGowan is the Biden Foundation’s Director for LGBTQ Equality.