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Community shares sorrow at Shepard vigil

A midday silent vigil honoring the memory of a gay murder victim transformed the busy steps of 77 Massachusetts Ave. into a somber and even sacred space last Friday.

The crowd of about 200 people, including faculty, staff, students and visiting family members, gathered to grieve the death, by brutal assault, of Matthew Shepard, 22, in Laramie, WY. Mr. Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming.

The MIT event was scheduled to coincide with the Shepard family's funeral for Matthew in Casper, WY. A large sympathy card, complete with a drawing of the front of MIT with rainbow stripes serving as the landmark stone steps, was signed by about 300 mourners and passersby. (Designed by Ed McCluney, director of the Student Art Association, the card was sent to Mr. Shepard's parents.) Participants quickly filled the vigil space, passing one another little rainbow-striped stickers and taking, it seemed, extra care not to rustle papers in the brisk fall breeze.

Ruth T. Davis, publications manager in the Communications Office, opened the emotional event with the comment, "We are affected because Matthew was a member of an academic community and because he was a member of the gay family. We are here today because we are so deeply saddened by his death."

Kathryn A. Willmore, vice president of MIT and secretary of the Corporation, read a statement by President Charles M. Vest, who was in Washington, DC. Declaring he was "present in spirit" at the vigil, he wrote, "I want to express my appreciation to those of you who have gathered to bear witness to a terrible human and societal tragedy. The horrific death of this young man reminds us all that intolerance and lack of acceptance of our fellow human beings can, and does, manifest itself in terrible ways.

"A better world for all begins in our individual hearts and minds. Let us each contemplate the meaning of this tragedy and learn its lessons. And let us all, gay and straight, colleagues and friends, maintain a community of mutual respect, learning and accomplishment," Dr. Vest wrote.

Matthew Dyer, a graduate student in chemical engineering, followed with a statement from Mr. Shepard's parents noting that their son was a "strong believer in humanity and human rights," a person whom they knew believed "each of us should treat others with respect and dignity."

Ms. Willmore also read an excerpt from a statement by Steven Charleston, chaplain at Trinity College.

"Silence killed Matthew Shepard��������������������������� Crimes of hate may live in shouts of rage, but they are born in silence���������������������������

"A young man's heart has ceased to beat. Hear the silence of that awful truth. It is the silence of death. It is the silence that descends on us like a shroud��������������������������� [We are] surrounded by the silence of our own fear. Our fear of those who are different. Our fear of being identified with the scapegoat. Our fear of taking an unpopular position for the sake of those who cannot stand alone. Our fear of social and religious change.

"As a person of faith, I will listen��������������������������� and I will remember. And I will renew my resolve never to allow this silence to have the last word. Not for Matthew. Not for gay men or lesbian women. Not for any person in our society of any color or condition who has been singled out for persecution. Not in my church. Not in my nation. Not in Wyoming. And not at Trinity College."

"And not," Ms. Willmore added, "at MIT."

Other speakers exhorted the crowd to end their own silence, to close the gap between generations of gay Americans and to build safe communities.

Jeremy Sher, a senior in mathematics, laid the blame for Mr. Shepard's death on "millions. The entire society has a role in this murder��������������������������� We have a long way to go before we can be sure we won't be out here again."

Frank Tipton, a graduate student in political science, grew up in Colorado. Over the din of Friday's noontime traffic, he recalled the emptiness of the landscape out west ("Wyoming feels and seems rather empty, certainly when you think about what happened to Matthew Shepard") as well as the loneliness and other difficulties of coming out as a gay teenager.

"This is a wake-up call for all of us who live in states different from Wyoming. Go back to where we grew up, our high schools. There are opportunities to reach out and connect with others," Mr. Tipton said.

"The sticker tells me I am in a safe place. I don't have to worry. Make MIT a safe place to be. Let us not worry about Matthew Shepard's outcome here," said Rochelle Weichman, program director at the Sloan School, commented on wearing her rainbow sticker and seeing others do the same.

Edward A. Jacobson, office administrator for the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, introduced himself as a gay parent and read a statement by the Episcopal priest who delivered the last rites to Mr. Shepard. Details of those moments -- "the lights blinked and the respirator purred as I anointed his scarred head with oil" -- restored the group's focus on Mr. Shepard's tragic fate.

Two students also read poems evoking Mr. Shepard. The first, read by Terrance Harmon, coordinator for Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals at MIT (GAMIT) and a senior in electrical engineering and computer science, began, "Matthew, can you hear me?"

The second was written and read by Joaquin Terrones, a senior from Mexico City majoring in literature. "I've lost two friends to hate crime violence. This poem is my own way of remembering," he said. "Your response hidden in the feverish murmuring/Of leaves, offers only solace to your palms numb, stiff/And broken: there is nothing that can't be loved."

The vigil for Matthew Shepard lasted just over half an hour, but it gave paticipants a chance to contemplate both the meaning of community and the challenges that individual members face.

"It was a powerful event," said vigil participant Carol Orme-Johnson, assistant dean of housemasters and director of mediation. "The feelings of sorrow, anger and fear among the gay people at the vigil combined with the shared outrage and warm support from the straight people there reminded us of all we have in common and create a joint determination to make our world safer for everyone regardless of sexual orientation. MIT is a better place for having shared this moment."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 21, 1998.

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