Author/poet Lesléa Newman spreads message of equality and acceptance to students

Minah Kim, News Editor

A University of Wyoming college student walks into a bar where he meets two friendly men.  The boy reveals himself to be gay and the men proceed to say that they are gay.  The boy agrees to get a ride from the men, who drive to an isolated field where they torture, beat, and leave him tied to a fence to die.  Matthew Shepard died on October 12, 1998, the day that author and poet Lesléa Newman went to the University of Wyoming to present her controversial children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies in celebration of National Coming Out Day.

A crusader for ending hatred through education, Ms. Newman memorialized the story of Matthew Shepard in her book of poetry, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.  Since then, Ms. Newman has been active in the movement for freedom and justice for all and the creation of a safe environment for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation.  As part of her cause, Ms. Newman gives presentations in schools and universities across the country. On Oct. 18, the English Department and the Dolphin Bookshop brought Ms. Newman to speak to students about her literary work and her experiences.  Most students who attended were those fulfilling their author talk requirement of the English honors project.

In honor and remembrance of her true cause, goal, and passion, Ms. Newman opened her presentation with the tragic story of Matthew Shepard.

“I want to keep Matthew Shepard’s legacy alive.  I hope my talk inspires people.  My goal is to erase hate and replace it with compassion, understanding, and love,” said Ms. Newman.

She proceeded to read excerpts from of October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, a book of poetry conveying the horror and aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s death from the perspective of the witnesses at the scene—the murderers, the fence, the stars, and the rope.  While she read her poems, she shared slides containing photographs of Matthew Shepard and the fence to which he had been tied accompanied the poetry reading.

“Her poems were beautifully written and very moving,” said freshman Isabelle Wilson.

Ms. Newman then presented slides of the headlined and nameless students who have been hurt or committed suicide as a result of anti-gay bullying, and she asked students and teachers in the room to observe a moment of silence in honor and memory of all bullied and mistreated students.

“She is amazing.  She is very powerful.  I’m really happy to be in a position where I can share her book with people and through that open people’s minds,” said Patti Vunk, owner of Dolphin Bookshop.

She then shared her essay entitled, “Imagine” in which she recounted her experience speaking to and meeting the students of University of Wyoming, her reaction to the Matthew Shepard incident, and her reason for traveling to schools across the country.

“As a poet, it is part of my job to imagine, to use my imagination. As a person too. Because only if we imagine that what happened to Matthew Shepard can happen to anyone else or someone we love will we be motivated to do something.  And something has to be done,” Ms. Newman said in her essay, “Imagine.”

Ms. Newman then engaged students in a guided visualization.  Students were to close their eyes or look at the photo of Matthew Shepard projected on the screen.

“I want you to use your imagination and imagine a world that is safe for everybody.  It doesn’t matter what your gender is, doesn’t matter what your sexuality is, it doesn’t matter what your skin color is, it doesn’t matter what your nationality is, doesn’t matter if your tall or short or thin or fat, it does not matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter what your skills are or your interests.  Nobody will tease you…Nobody will hurt you for being who you are,” said Ms. Newman.

She then prompted students to think of what they were scared to do in our world.

“For me it is a couple of things.  Walking down a city street at midnight, taking a hike alone would be scary to me.  I’m a lesbian and I am legally married, there are certain places that I would not feel safe holding her hand.”

She completed her presentation with a parting message.

“I encourage every one of us to make a difference.  To carry on the legacy.  Matthew Shepard was very committed to social justice for all people…what I want everybody to do is to think of one tangible, concrete thing that you can do to make the world a safer place for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and allies community.”

She then had students discuss and make a commitment to execute the concrete act within the next week.

“As someone who is out as bi, it is very important that people know about this issue.  I wish there could have been more people here to see her presentation,” said sophomore Rachel Ellerson.

Ms. Newman concluded her presentation by answering questions from students about her experience writing as well as her involvement in the LGBT community.  In order to write these poems she reached out to Matthew Shepard’s family and took advantage of resources like his mother’s memoir and the town newspaper.

After the presentation in the library, the Gay-Straight Alliance and the English Department hosted a luncheon for Ms. Newman.  With wraps, chips, beverages, and cookies, students and teachers had an opportunity to speak to Ms. Newman up close on a more personal level.  She shared her experiences in different parts of the country and addressed concerns and issues that members of the Gay-Straight alliance brought up.