“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

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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

 

Growing Up In a Town Hospitable to Lesbians and Others With Non-Binary Lifestyles

 

I’m pretty sure the central-Maine town I grew up in was modestly hospitable to lesbians and other women who didn’t fit neatly into a heterosexual mold.

There were the two close friends who worked in Newberry’s.

The egg lady who made deliveries smoking a pipe.

And the Page sisters in Burlingon I visited with my grandfather.

In hindsight it didn’t seem to matter if these and so many other women I knew were lesbians or fell somewhere else on the LBGTQIA+ spectrum.

Rugged Little Town

Lincoln is carved from a forest of white pines and birches.

Many of the 13, grey-blue lakes that dot the landscape are framed in pink quartz and granite.

It’s much closer to Canada than any major American city.

And it is still the place my heart calls home.

 

It’s a rugged little town whose sole industry, making paper, closed down as reading became digitized and competitors in China and Finland prevailed.

Overt femininity peaked for many of us in the experimental years of high school.

Perhaps it tapered as the practicalities of living in a remote part of the state took over.

Where snow gets deep and stays.

And summers are breathtaking but require a certain no-nonsense approach to black flies and mosquitoes.

Yet it seemed as long as you were white, Christian (though not necessarily practicing), Republican (as evidenced by not declaring to be a Democrat), a hunter or recipient of the hunt (as my mother was with the necks of deer for mincemeat canning), you were  accepted.

My decade of influence was the 1960s.

Lesbianism and other lifestyles weren’t talked about, but in hindsight they sure seemed to be accepted.

Especially if you were a lone woman or part of a quiet, female couple.

Anti-discrimination in Wyoming and Maine

The second-ever Pride Week just ended in Laramie, Wyoming, the town my husband and I have lived in for the past 11 months.

It’s where Matthew Shepard attended college and was brutally murdered 20 years ago by being beat up, tied up, and left for dead at the base of a fence.

Laramie now has a city ordinance – the only such one in the state – that prohibits “discrimination of any person based upon his or her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.”

Unlike Maine, Wyoming doesn’t yet have state-wide protection laws.

State anti-discrimination laws
Grey = no state protections; dark purple = states that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; the rest of the state laws are somewhere in between.

Women’s Alternative Lifestyles in Lincoln

Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins
Olympia Snowe (left), represented Maine in Congress for 34 years – 16 as a House Member and 18 as a Senator. Susan Collins (right) has been a Maine U.S. Senator for 22 years.

I have to wonder how the women who chose alternative-lifestyles managed in Lincoln back then.

How did they deal with inheritances, hospital visits, and the whole next-of-kin thing?

And more generally, how much of who they were did they have to keep secret?

Still, I don’t recall — even once — anyone making a face or a fuss over how someone else chose to live.

And this was a time before precedence, formal laws, ordinances or activists for equal rights having much of a voice.

Maine Congresswoman and Senator, Margaret Chase Smith, 1940-1973.

It may simply have been a case of getting along with one another.

Through my eyes it was a matriarchal community, starting with my grandmother, then my mother and her strong, funny friends.

And might that be part of the answer?

When not goaded to separation by hateful media and cruel religious takes on right and wrong, could it be that people naturally accept one another?

Even act kindly?

Maybe as time has passed and Maine continues to elect centrist, independently-minded, female leaders,  Lincoln’s ease with people just as they are continues to grow.

I know my own has.

Take Action!

Read about Lincoln, Maine

Learn about aging LBGTQIA+ in Maine. “AARP Maine/SAGE Maine: Statewide GLBT Aging Project Report,” by Jane Margesson, March 22, 2013.

Learn about SAGE: Advocacy and services for LGBTQ elders

Support  Wyoming Equality.

Learn about EQMaine – Equality Maine

Learn about non-discrimination in Maine

Read about Wyoming’s Safe Zone, free online trainings for LBGTQIA allies.

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Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West

 

Kate Muir Welsh and the Social Justice Research Center at the University of Wyoming

social justice research centerThe Center for Social Justice Research at the University of Wyoming was founded 10 years ago.

And its creation emerged from an endowment set up after Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie in 1998.

Kate Muir Welsh directs the Center.

While her public talks often begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, they linger on, “. . . and justice for all.”

“What, exactly, is ‘justice for all?'” she asks.

“Is it equitable access?

“Equitable resources?

“Assurance that needs will be met?”

She points to examples of campus-wide justice projects: the Martin Luther King Days of Dialogue, the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, and the student-led Good Mule Project.

Likewise, social justice is strong at Muir’s home. She said she and her husband share the same beliefs.

“We do small acts of kindness.

“We donate money to causes we believe in.

“And we engage politically.”

“What, exactly, is ‘justice for all’? Is it equitable access? Equitable resources? Assurance that everyone’s needs will be met?”

Current Research Areas

Regarding critical issues in Wyoming, Welsh says the wage gap is front and center.

As recently as 2017, Fortune found that Wyoming ranks lowest for female/male wage equality.

Sadly, women earn 64¢ to a man’s dollar15 compared to the national average of 80¢ on the dollar.

kate muir welsh
Kate Muir Welsh directs the Social Justice Research Center at the University of Wyoming.

And adding to the concerns, Muir pointed to momentum gaining for immigration issues.

Ironically, Wyoming is the only state without a refugee resettlement program16 and yet is considering hosting an immigration prison17.

With a primarily white population (about 92%), race and intolerance are also perennial concerns.18

Currently the Center awards research grants based on individual applications.


 

Take Action!

•  See video highlights from the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice is April 11-14, 2018 in Laramie, including talks and panels that feature Matthew Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard.

Matthew Shepard Foundation, in its 20th year of  striving “to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.”

•  Watch any of 165 Ted Talks on Social Justice.

•  Likewise, read about Safe Zone training at the University of Wyoming


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Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West