Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten and tortured, died 19 years ago today. Two days after he died, a vigil took place on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Celebrities, members of Congress and thousands of others gathered to condemn Shepard’s death and urge the immediate passage of a hate-crimes bill.
“We need to send the strongest possible signal … that these crimes will not be tolerated in the United States,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy told the crowd at the candlelight vigil. “Hate crimes are crimes against our country. There is still time for Congress to respond.”
Ellen DeGeneres was one speaker at the vigil for Matthew Shepard
Ellen DeGeneres powerfully addressed the crowd as well that night. We found footage of the entire vigil on YouTube, but fast forward to the 14:30 mark to specifically hear DeGeneres’ important words that still resonate deeply today.
“I am so pissed off,” DeGeneres begins with tears in her eyes. “I can’t stop crying.”
“I know we all feel the same way, and I’m here, and he’s got these two close friends here, and I don’t even know him and I’m thinking this is just really selfish of me,” DeGeneres says. “It just hit me why I am so devastated by it. Because this is what I was trying to stop. This is exactly why I did what I did.”
Referring to her historic coming out on television, DeGeneres pointed out that it angered thousands of people and those same people were silent in the wake of Shepard’s death.
“You see them come out in forces when they think a lesbian is gonna be on television. The preachers come out then,” she says. “But, you know, something like this happens, and where are they?”
“This world we live in today is filled with hate and darkness,” she continues. “Matthew Shepard was not the first hate crime. It happens every day. There are 2,500 reported this year. Many go unreported because most gays and lesbians are still in the closet for fear of this exact reason.”
Next she makes parallels between the epidemics of homophobia and racism in America. She also specifically points blame at the church, which she says justifys its hate with the Bible.
“When three white men dragged James Byrd Jr. behind their truck and killed him just because he was black, I felt the same way,” DeGeneres says. “I don’t see full-page ads saying ‘Stop the hate. Stop the violence.’ These same evil, idiotic, so-called God-loving people who use the Bible to justify their hate, I’m sure they still feel deep down that blacks aren’t equal to whites because the Bible was also used to justify slavery.”
“It took one white man, Abraham Lincoln, to free the slaves. He wasn’t very popular for doing it, but he knew it was the right thing to do,” she says. “When Hitler was killing all the Jews, the church was silent. They did nothing. It was a few good Germans who helped hide the Jews. Right now, homosexuals are the target of it: the very last discrimination, the very worst hate and violence.”
Her powerful words ring true today
DeGeneres ends her speech with a plea to straight people listening to help and not hurt the LGBT community’s quest for equality.
“So I’m begging heterosexuals to see this as a wake-up call to help us end the hate,” she says. “Please raise your children with love and non-judgment. Tell them that everyone has the right to love who they want to love, and that shouldn’t threaten you or who you are. Explain that it’s not OK to call someone a ‘faggot’ or a ‘nigger’ or a ‘kike.’ We shouldn’t be asked to change who we are. The millions of dollars that the religious right spends on print ads and TV ads could be spent on helping to change the homeless or help change men who abuse women.”
“Matthew Shepard wasn’t hurting anyone,” she continues. “He was a good person, a gentle soul who was tortured to death. He’s with God now, who I’m sureis crying. My torture goes on every time I think of what those boys did to him just because he was gay. This is a war. We need your help. Please search your hearts, think for yourselves and be on the right side: the side of love and compassion.”
This Ellen is angry, and we think the world needs Angry Ellen just as much today as it did 19 years ago.