Rod Rodriguez knew he was gay before Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998- but no one else did. The brutal beating that killed Shepard made Rodriguez realize he could no longer hide who he was.
“The day I found out he died, I realized that I couldn’t live the rest of my life not being who I knew I was,” said Rodriguez, a senior technical journalism major. “Even if I would be the next Matthew Shepard, I couldn’t live a lie.”
For many homosexuals in Fort Collins and at CSU, Shepard’s beating and his eventual death pushed them out of the closet and into the open of what is considered by many to be a very conservative city.
Despite this fact, the death also made many homosexuals question their safety and treatment in Fort Collins and at CSU, even four years later.
“I think that on campus (homosexuality) is more accepted, but I think the community at large is not accepting,” said Randy McCrillis, director of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Student Services. “(Shepard’s death) made us think about how ‘out’ we’re going to be and how safe the community is.”
Shepard was a University of Wyoming student who was attacked in October 1998 outside a Laramie club. He died at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.
Shortly after Shepard’s death, a float appeared in the CSU Homecoming Parade depicting a scarecrow with an anti-gay message on it. The cyclist who found Shepard said they mistook him for a scarecrow when they first saw him.
The Alpha Chi Omega sorority and the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity co-sponsored the float. Pi Kappa Alpha was removed by the university in 1998 and then reinstated in 2000 and Alpha Chi Omega disbanded itself from its national chapter soon after and is still disbanded.
Shepard’s death is part of an increasing national trend towards hate crimes because of sexual orientation. Almost 1,300 sexual orientation hate crimes occurred in 2000, up from 1,019 in 1995, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report,
However, the problems homosexuals encounter in Fort Collins do not stop with hate crimes.
An ordinance to add sexual orientation discrimination to the existing Fort Collins anti-discrimination laws was put on the ballot in 1998. This ordinance would have made it illegal for property owners, employers and persons of public access to deny housing, employment or service to homosexuals. Fort Collins citizens voted against the ordinance by a 62 percent vote.
“It’s sad that we’re still seeing the same kinds of problems without seeing where the community is willing to take a strong stand,” said Bob Lenk, chair of the Human Relations Commission, an advisory commission to city council that originally proposed the concept of renewing the city’s existing anti-discrimination laws. “There is still discrimination against gays and lesbians and we as a community should be protecting them from that kind of discrimination.”
Jim Ringenberg, a local attorney who was against the ordinance, thought it was unconstitutional and violated free speech rights.
“All people ought to be respected, but we ought to be able to respectively disagree,” he said. “I thought that what happened to Matthew Shepard was the most vile type of behavior, but it was a terribly done ordinance. It was a radicalization of the human rights codes in the city.”
Judy Doenges, a lesbian assistant professor in the English department, moved to Fort Collins from the Pacific Northwest about three years ago. She and her partner have not personally experienced any anti-homosexual sentiment, but she said that Fort Collins is more conservative than her former city.
“We have felt very comfortable in our neighborhood and very comfortable in town so far,” said Doenges, who moved into a neighborhood she had heard was more open-minded. “The Northwest is more liberal. There was a lot of queer visibility.”
The presence of Fred Phelps at CSU is another issue that must be considered by all Fort Collins residents, not just homosexuals. Phelps is the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church and his group will be attending the Saturday’s CSU-Wyoming football game to, “celebrate the anniversary of Matt Shepard’s entry into hell,” Phelps said in a press release.
While almost all homosexuals think what Phelps is doing is reprehensible, most seem to believe he has a right to speak his mind.
“As abhorrent as what he’s doing is, I certainly think he has a right to say what he wants to say,” Doenges said. “However, I also feel his presence on campus creates a potentially more hostile environment for GLBT students. I assume he’s extending the invitation towards violence towards other GLBT students as well.”
For now, Rod Rodriguez said he will have to accept that violence or discrimination can be enacted upon him at any time, but he does see promise for the future of homosexuality in Fort Collins and at CSU.
“(Shepard’s death) really got some much needed dialogue started in this city,” Rodriguez said. “I feel a lot more comfortable walking around campus and being able to be who I am (without) having to walk around in fear that I’ll get my head bashed in.”
-Edited by Shandra Jordan and Ben Koerselman