Sunday, February 29, 2004
Five years ago, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was taken to a field outside Laramie, tied to a fence and savagely beaten because he was gay.
Police said Shepard was hit on the head 18 times with the butt of a .357 Magnum pistol. His skull was fractured in four places. Shepard died a slow death.
Could it happen in Lawrence?
"Oh, I think so," said Shepard's mother, Judy. "I think it can happen anywhere."
The fact Lawrence tends to be more liberal than most Kansas communities doesn't matter, she said. Laramie, too, is a left-of-center college town.
"The microcosm of people who are capable of this kind of thing exist all over the world," Shepard said. "So the possibility for this happening again exists wherever you go. It's in every community."
Shepard, 51, will be in Lawrence on Monday to kick off "Into the Streets Week," an annual series of events aimed at encouraging Kansas University students to get involved in their on- and off-campus communities.
Now a much-in-demand speaker, Shepard is to discuss the lessons to be learned from her son's death at 8 p.m. at the Lied Center. Her appearance is sponsored by KU's student-run Center for Community Outreach.
Tickets are free and available at the Student Union Activities box office in the Kansas Union.
Close call in Lawrence
Martin Miller says Lawrence came uneasily close to having a Matthew Shepard-type case on its hands 14 months ago when Jeffrey Medis, an openly gay man, was knocked unconscious outside the Replay Lounge, 946 Mass.
Medis suffered a concussion, broken nose, fractured eye socket, fractured upper and lower jaws and a gash on his chin that took six stitches to close. His concussion triggered an epileptic seizure.
"I don't want to say that the person who hit Mr. Medis intended to kill him. I do not know his intent," said Miller, a Lawrence attorney. "But I do know that this could have been a manslaughter case, very easily."
Miller represented John Thomas Simmons, a friend of Medis', who was charged with hitting four fraternity brothers he thought had hit Medis. A jury found Simmons guilty of hitting two of the four, and of disorderly conduct.
Simmons, who admitted being drunk at the time, later was sentenced to six months in the Douglas County Jail. He is now on parole.
Lucas Wells, of Wamego, a friend of one of the fraternity brothers, is charged with hitting Medis. His trial is set for June 1.
At Simmons' trial, Wells testified he hit Medis after Medis took two swings at his friend Nikolaus Eichman, a member of the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity.
Wells said he didn't realize Medis was gay, even though Medis testified that he was wearing heavy eye makeup and a white, frilly jacket that made him look like a "gay snowball."
A passerby who witnessed the assault denied Medis had thrown any punches before being knocked to the concrete. Medis has no memory of the assault.
Medis, who now lives in California, insisted he was a victim of a hate crime. He filed a civil lawsuit against Wells last year. A trial date has not been set.
Contacted by the Journal-World last week, Medis declined comment.
"My lawyer has told me not to say anything, so I'd better not," he said.
Sarah Burris, 22, is director of Queers and Allies, a gay and lesbian student organization at KU.
She doesn't blame Lawrence for what happened to Medis. But Lawrence isn't guilt-free, either.
"I love Lawrence," she said. "I feel safe here. But you have to understand, I came here from Yukon, Okla., a place where I didn't feel safe at all."
Lawrence and KU being gay friendly isn't enough, Burris said.
"There's still a long way to go," she said. "For the last two years, I chaired Q-and-A's outreach committee and I did everything I could to get our speakers into fraternities and sororities for panel discussions on acceptance.
"The fraternities would at least talk to us -- and tell us, no, they weren't interested. But the sororities wouldn't even do that," Burris said.
Still, Burris said she knew "a lot of gay frat boys" in fraternities that accept their homosexuality.
"It's not like they're going to march in the (Gay) Pride Week parade or anything like that," she said. "But they're out, they're accepted, and if they ever got in a situation, their brothers would defend them.
"There's nothing like that going on in the sororities."
That may soon change. Stephanie LeClaire, vice president for public relations for KU's Panhellenic Assn. said she was unaware of Burris' overtures.
"I am certain that Panhellenic would have been in favor of such a discussion, had we been informed of it," LeClaire wrote in an e-mail to the Journal-World.
John Younger and his partner moved to Lawrence two years ago.
"I love Lawrence, and not just because it's a college town," Younger said. "We came here from Durham, North Carolina, which is a college town and, yes, it's liberal, but it is by no means gay-tolerant. No way."
But, Younger said, he sometimes wondered if Lawrence was too tolerant.
"It's like we're so tolerant -- if there was a problem here, we wouldn't recognize it," he said.
Case in point: Topeka minister Fred Phelps and his followers picketing outside Matthew Shepard's funeral, marching with signs that read "God Hates Fags."
They'll be outside the Lied Center from 7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday.
"They're tolerated," Younger said. "Now I know what he's doing is protected by the First Amendment, free speech and all that. But I have a hard time believing that if he was holding up signs that said 'God Hates N-word' or 'God Hates Kikes,' we'd be quite so tolerant.
"It's almost like there's a lingering tolerance of intolerance when it's against gays," Younger said.
Shepard said she would not be deterred by Phelps.
"I feel bad for him," Shepard said. "His life is so immersed in hate. I've come to realize that what he does isn't really between him and me, it's between him and whatever the demons are that he's fighting."