The New Gay Struggle


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What people mean when they say Matthew Shepard's murder was a lynching is that he was killed to make a point. When he was 21 years old, the world's arguments reached him with deadly force and printed their worst conclusions across him. So he was stretched along a Wyoming fence not just as a dying young man but as a signpost. "When push comes to shove," it says, "this is what we have in mind for gays."

Three days after Shepard died, a crowd of around 5,000 gathered in the night on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, in a candlelight vigil that struggled to make another argument and extract another message from his death. Ellen DeGeneres, Ted Kennedy and Barney Frank, the openly gay Massachusetts Congressman--all the expected speakers took the microphone. What was less expected was the sheer turnout of lawmakers at a moment when Congress was embroiled in the crazy closing hours of the budget deal. So many members showed up to voice their grief and anger that House minority leader Dick Gephardt had time only to read their names. "It speaks volumes about how much progress we've made," says Winnie Stachelberg, lobbyist for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's biggest gay-rights group. "Yet Matthew's death shows how much farther we have to go."

A lot farther, and through swamps. However much it revolted people all around the country, don't count on Shepard's murder to revolutionize the intractable politics of gay rights in Washington or elsewhere. In the aftermath of the killing, President Clinton urged Congress to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a bill long bottled up by conservatives and other groups in Congress because it would broaden the definition of hate crimes to include assaults on gays as well as women and the disabled. But with Congress adjourned until after Election Day, the momentum to pass the bill is no sure thing.

And while Shepard's death has forced even the most belligerently anti-gay conservatives to situate themselves carefully--condemning the murder while insisting they contributed nothing to the atmosphere that might legitimize it--the Republican Party, beholden to its Christian-activist base, doesn't dare compromise much on gay rights. One speaker at the vigil was Wyoming's former Senator Alan Simpson, a Republican. But Wyoming's current G.O.P. Senators, Michael Enzi and Craig Thomas, didn't show.

Gay politics is more complicated than ever right now because what seems like an irresistible force of cultural change is meeting an immovable object of political resistance. For a long time, lesbians and gays have been defining themselves into the ordinary fabric of life. All the while, conservatives have been field-testing homosexuality as a defining issue for the Republican Party, especially for the next presidential election. This is all happening while Americans generally are drifting toward a bumpy accommodation, making judgments that are intricate, ad hoc and unpredictable. In a new TIME/CNN poll, 64% of those questioned thought homosexual relations are acceptable, but 48% thought they are morally wrong.

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