20 Years After

Matthew Shepard’s Murder in Laramie, Wyoming

by guest contributor, Jess Fahlsing*

Jess Fahlsing with their mom,
Sue Fahlsing.

“Love you.”

Whenever I go biking out east of Laramie, I send my mom that text.

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon for me to text her that.  We have a pretty good relationship, so she doesn’t always know why I text her, “Love you.”

I do it after biking, because I remember Judy Shepard’s words, quoted by Rulon Stacey in a press release after Matthew Shepard died.

“Go home, give your kids a hug, and don’t let a day go by without telling them that you love them.”  

I’ve flipped those words around so that, whenever I go biking into the land where Matthew was taken, beaten, and left to die tied to a fence, I text my mom and tell her I love her.

I can make it back home.  Matt never can.

“Go home, give your kids a hug, and don’t let a day go by without telling them that you love them.”

Judy Shepard

Growing Up in Rock Springs, Wyoming

I grew up in Rock Springs, Wyoming, mountain biking in the desert.  It was a place where there was no visible queer community.  No clubs at the high school.  Very few queer role models out in the town.  I did have a trans friend, but they faced extreme violence in that town. 

I love the land there.  My heart yearns to go back.  

You can’t change who or what you love.

Yet there are some things you can’t make it back from.  That you cannot return to.  

I don’t know that I will return to Rock Springs to live long-term.  But I do know that Laramie has given me a lot. Laramie PrideFest, founded by Robert West, gave me the space to find a queer community here after I started openly identifying as lesbian at age 21.  It gave me the space to honor what activists before me have given up, and to remember Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, transwomen of color who were key in the Stonewall Riots.

. . . whenever I go biking into the land where Matthew was taken, beaten, and left to die tied to a fence, I text my mom and tell her I love her.

Jess Fahlsing

Shepard Symposium on Social Justice

In Laramie, the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice [hosted by the University of Wyoming each year in April] gave me a family. They are my family.  That is actually how Ellen and I met.  

Through the Shepard Symposium, I had the honor to co-chair the Matthew Shepard Memorial Group with Dr. Emily Monago, Chief Officer of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.  As part of the Memorial, we put banners for Matthew on the University Union.

“That wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years ago, when I was here for grad school,” a friend told me, who was visiting Laramie the same time as the Memorial.  

[Rock Springs] was a place without a visible queer community.  No clubs at the high school.  Very few queer role models out in the town.  

So there is good change.  There is love.  There is the text that I can keep sending my mom.

“Love you.”

And she will send it back.

Jess and their sister Anna (left) and mom, Sue, (right).

. . .

Take Action!

Attend the next Shepard Symposium on Social Justice April 10-13, 2019. All are welcome.

Read about Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents I admire deeply in life.

If you’re curious about the use of the singular personal pronoun “they,” take a look at this post: “Take Two: Why the Singular, Non-Binary ‘They’ Pronoun is Darned Difficult to Master.”

.  .  .

* Jess Fahlsing is a senior at the University of Wyoming. They are dual majoring in Psychology and Gender and Women’s Studies with minors in Queer Studies, Honors, and Creative Writing. What’s important to know when reading this love letter is that 20 years ago Matthew Shepard was also a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie when he was murdered in a hate crime for being gay.

I am privileged to know Jess and grateful for their contribution to this blog. I look forward to following their career which surely will expand social justice and human rights in ways that have yet to be revelaed. — Ellen

Witnessing Joy Was the Christmas Gift

Christmas 1958.

Christmas in Maine was routine.

Not a hum-drum sort of thing but rather something to count on.

Thanksgiving led to Christmas Eve at the Congo church that kicked off restless sleep before Santa came.

Photo for an annual Christmas card. The popup book? “Poochy the Christmas Pup.”

Before sunrise could emerge my sister and I would locate our bulging knit stockings and empty the contents as our parents looked on.

Then in heightened anticipation of the rest of the day, my mother’s elegant, candle-lit breakfast would be ever-so-slightly rushed.

In record time dishes were washed and put away so that the only thing standing between us and racing toward gift exchanges was Nana Webster’s deliberation.

And trust me when I say her Christmas-day pace was remarkably relaxed.

With Nana Webster in 1960.

She admired each gift.

It was held up and received as if it had been personally delivered by one of the three kings.

Because to her it had been.

And as our elder, she got to go first in the slow rotation — one person, one gift at a time.

It’s a cadence I’ve come to love.

To grandmother’s house we go

Halfway through the day we’d bundle up and walk three houses down to be with our other grandparents where happy chaos prevailed. 

They were faster, didn’t save paper like mom and Nana, and one of them used expletives like most of us throw out thank yous.

“Well for *&@!#%’s sake, who gave me this?” my grandmother would ask.

Bob and Hattie Weatherbee, 1960.

With a door always open to nine children and spouses, 21 grandchildren, great grandchildren and long-time friends, even ordinary days in their home were high-energy events.

And rarely a day passed in my youth when I wasn’t in their company for at least part of it.

This segment of the Christmas ritual meant watching as they opened packages between pausing for coffee warm ups, taking calls from friends, and greeting relatives entering and exiting the scene.

Witnessing joy in one another was what these days were about.

Christmas present

As an adult I count my blessings for each year I get to spend with my husband and children.

And it’s inevitable that sometime during Christmas day, reflection will appear.

I’ll miss kicking off wet boots to  rush into cousin Berta’s room to see what Santa left.

I’ll sense a longing for the sweet scent of baking bread and will feel the acute, still undefined loss that accompanied the stocking’s end as I reached the navel orange that filled the toe.

Such a poor use of space, I still think . . .

I’ll miss my mom and my dad, the man who modeled agape love.

I’ll think about Nana and Grampie Bob and my beloved Grammie. 

Dog memories of Patches, Rocky, Wags and Tippy will color in the background.

And in a flash the foundation responsible for this year’s Christmas will be acknowledged with a nod to the past and a prayer of thanksgiving for the joy I get to witness right here and right now.

Wishing each of you a moment to witness joy 
in this and every day.
. . .
(a recent photo taken at Ariana and Lucas’ wedding in Los Angeles — my son Byron, daughter Audrey, me, and my husband, Ed)

Carla Trier Brings Heaps of Love to Sheridan, Wyoming by Way of the Foster Parent Exchange

Carla Trier, founder and Executive Director of Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange.

Carla Trier has a radio voice, and you want to listen when she speaks.

It’s sultry and earnest and sparkles when she talks about the nine children she has fostered/mentored as a single parent.

Her first foster daughter was seven years old when she arrived on New Years Eve 2012.

“She came only with a sack of things,” Carla said.

“She was sobbing, and I made a pretty fast decision that this wasn’t the way things should work.” she said.

That clarity lead to the Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange.

Carla said, “Children are removed from parents quickly, and that usually meant stuffing a few things into a trash bag as they are taken from the parents.”

But awareness is changing, and evidence of that are duffle bags often replacing plastic bags when children are picked up.

“That makes the little ones’ self images a lot different than arriving at a new home with a garbage bag,” she said.

Carla was a foster child, but unlike most children she encounters, she was sent with a suitcase and a teddy bear under her arm.

Change is also seen in Sheridan in the form of both children and the foster parents receiving help faster.

Children immediately receive 7 days worth of clothes, hygiene kits, towels, handmade quilts, coats, shoes, socks and underwear, pajamas, books, and stuffed toys.

Yet it’s not about handing a child a bag.

“Sometimes they’ve never had things that are their own, and we don’t ask for anything back,” Carla said.

As well, foster parents, grandparents, and biological parents reuniting with their families are all supported by this 501(c)3 nonprofit.

What Carla Would Like You to Know

“People say foster care is something they could never do.” Carla said.

“They’re afraid they’ll get attached to a kid and then they’ll leave”

Carla and her first foster daughter. The following year Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange was created.

To Carla, though, if you don’t give it your all, you’re not serving yourself or the child.

“The love they know when they are with you may be the only time they experience that in their lives.

“That might be the only place they have to go back to in their minds.”

“Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.”
Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

“It’s not always been easy with my kids,” Carla said.

Yet her support is unwavering.

“The love they know when they are with you may be the only time they experience that in their lives. That might be the only place they have to go back to in their minds.”

“I tell all my kids, I am not going to give up.

“I say, ‘Hey, I love you.
‘Hey, you matter.
‘Hey, you made my day special.
‘My day is always better with you in it.'”

“Those are things they may not hear in their lives,” she said.

“I just keep showing up.”

Take Action!

Donate to the Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange.

Watch a 90-second video on Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange narrated by Carla Trier.

•  Learn about a similar organization in Laramie, Wyoming

•  Watch the feature film, “Instant Family,” based on director Sean Anders’ own experience adopting his three foster children. From the movie’s website learn more about fostering and adoption, and volunteering with the foster care system as a tutor, mentor, and more.

•  Read about other organizations doing great work in Wyoming:
Wyoming Foundation for Cancer Care Sees Far Beyond Medical Needs
–  Climb Wyoming Breaking Multi-Generational Single Mom Cycle of Poverty

•  Listen to Josh Shipp, a former foster child, talk about The Power of One Caring Adult

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski (she/her/hers) lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is EllenSynakowski.com. She is a Registered Craniosacral Therapist (RCST), is on the Board of Directors of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Association of North America (BCTA/NA), and is a practitioner of both HeartMath and The Connection Practice.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West

 

“Pain should not be wasted”— Deep Gratitude to Three Parents Who Have Not Wasted Their Pain

Dennis and Judy Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard.

Holocaust survivor, Gerda Weissmann Klein said, “Pain should not be wasted.”

And I am deeply grateful to three parents who live that wisdom.

Karen Ball began the Sturge-Weber Foundation when her daughter, Kaelin, was born with Sturge-Weber Syndrome accompanied by a significant facial port wine stain.

Because this Foundation was there when my son, Byron, was born with the same syndrome, we were not alone.

Karen continues to blaze trail after medical trail in service to others.

The Shepards of Casper, Wyoming

And then there are the Shepards.

Their son, Matthew, was murdered 20 years ago this month.

It was a hate crime for being gay.

Judy channeled her anger and pain and created good:  The Matthew Shepard Foundation.

And for two decades, she and her gentle husband, Dennis, have traveled the country and the world erasing hate, promoting tolerance, and heralding human rights for all.

“This is not about courage or some higher calling; This is what happens when you piss off a mother.” – Judy Shepard

We spent this week-end in their presence.

On October 26, 2018 at 10 a.m., a public celebration of Matthew’s life will precede his interment at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

His remains are still not safe in Wyoming.

And that is unimaginable.

The Shepards model both public anguish and resilience as they counter the injustice of Matthew’s death.

And though their service to humanity cannot be measured, award after award attempts to quantify the shift their work is creating.

As Judy said during the Shepard Symposium for Social Justice in Laramie last spring, “This is not about courage or some higher calling; This is what happens when you piss off a mother.”

And for me, a mother still fighting for me children — sometimes out of fear, occasionally from anger, and mostly out of love — I spill tears every time I’m close to the energy that swirls like tornados around Judy and Dennis.

Because beyond the LGBTQ community, the work they do emphasizes justice for all human life on the planet.

“Pain should not be wasted.”

And for Judy and Dennis and Karen it hasn’t been.

•  •  •

An excerpt from Dennis Shepard’s trial statement:

“You left him out there by himself, but he wasn’t alone . . . First, he had the beautiful night sky with the same stars and moon that we used to look at through a telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time — one more cool, wonderful autumn day in Wyoming . . . And through it all he was breathing in for the last time the smell of Wyoming sagebrush and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind — the ever-present Wyoming wind — for the last time. He had one more friend with him. He had God.

“I feel better knowing he wasn’t alone.”

Take Action!

•  Learn more at the Sturge-Weber Foundation

•  Help Erase Hate at the Matthew Shepard Foundation

•  Read about growing up in a moderately-tolerant town

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski (she/her/hers) lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is EllenSynakowski.com. She is a Registered Craniosacral Therapist (RCST), is on the Board of Directors of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Association of North America (BCTA/NA), and has been practicing Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy since 2013.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West