My Connection to LGBTQ+ History and the Road Traveled

In October 1998, Matthew Shepard was found nearly dead, hanging from a fence just outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Matthew was 21 years old. His murderers said that he made sexual advances toward them. They robbed and brutally beat him. Matthew died of his wounds six days later in a Fort Collins, Colorado hospital.

Just two years before, I was living in Fort Collins, CO. I was pursuing a master’s degree, had a full-time assistantship as coordinator of multicultural education and training, and had an internship in the Human Rights Advocacy and Education Office, a department of the City of Fort Collins. My work involved listening to complaints of discrimination in public accommodation, housing, and employment. There was also a huge amount of listening, educating, and advocacy. I was given, early in my life and career, a window into others’ realities in ways that helped broaden my awareness and perspective. I learned that many LGBTQ+ people had been living with threats and perpetrated violence. Among them, two of my academic and career mentors. People who identified themselves as working for the utility company had tried to gain access to their home to plant explosives. 

As is the case with ignorance, once lost, space is created for knowledge, curiosity, and transformation. The beginning of a personal transformation started for me then, a journey that I continue to travel. I realized then – with clarity that continues to drive my every interaction – that fighting to end oppression in all its forms, and wherever it exists, must be my living commitment.

Commitment to being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community means that every day, I show up with intention and attention to use my privilege in ways that create more equity. Examples have included:

  • Actively working with and spotlighting the work of LGBTQ+ people.
  • Standing up for members of the DJA team when clients or others have treated them in ways that I or they consider to be biased or offensive.
  • Talking with my son openly about the spectrum of human relationships; “normalizing” forms and expressions of love beyond those that are exclusively part of a dominant narrative.
  • Working with Shiloh’s dad, Pro Football Hall of Famer Richard Dent, to use his platform to speak out in support of same sex marriage in Illinois.
  • Apologizing when I’ve said or done something to a member of the DJA team or a client that has been perceived as a microaggression. My apologies 1) are genuine, 2) invite feedback on preferred future behavior, and 3) are accompanied by a commitment to stop the offensive behavior and immediately and consistently practice the new behavior.

I don’t always show up the way that I want to show up. My intentions and impact are not a one-to-one match. But getting it wrong sometimes is no reason to stop trying, particularly if my commitment to being an ally is rooted in a desire to end oppression, not just pat myself on the back for being woke. 

This may be the most important lesson I’ve learned: ending oppression is in my own best interest. 

First they came for the Communists 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a Communist 

Then they came for the Socialists 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a trade unionist 

Then they came for the Jews 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a Jew 

Then they came for me 

And there was no one left 

To speak out for me.

Martin Niemöller 

Hate targeting people I loved was a sounding bell for me. Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder was a sounding bell for so many others. I wish it wouldn’t have taken his violent-filled loss of life for so many of us to really lean in and listen to the voices of people who have for years been sharing the often pain-filled reality. For those who are still at a crossroad – who are filled with shame about biases that were ingrained in us and blind spots that we need to reckon with – now’s the time to make a new commitment. From this point forward it's all about what we do now and next, how we use our areas of privilege to bring more equity, justice, and inclusion to the world. As for me: it’s humbling, often exhausting, and intensely gratifying work.

How about you: what’s your next move?

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DeEtta Jones & Associates (DJA) guides leaders and organizations on a journey that builds capacity, strengthens innovation, and increases organizational performance by creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment.

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