On July 3, 2000, Arthur "JR" Warren, a 26-year-old African American gay man, was murdered in a hate crime by two young white men. The ran over him - repeatedly - with their pick-up truck after luring him into the woods.
J.R. Warren was a gay man who lived with learning disabilities and a birth defect that caused him to be born with several fingers missing on one hand. His family and friends described him as gentle and soft-spoken. He was so vulnerable.
It may seem that JR and Matt Shepard have little in common. But in death, it was one of Matt's friends who went to West Virginia to advocate for more and better media coverage of his death and help the local community and students at Fairmont College deal with this horrific incident. I know, I brought Matt's friend Romaine Patterson to work with me at GLAAD, and it was she who was dispatched to help in W. VA.
I cannot imagine how hard it was for Romaine, how painful to have the sense of deja vu, but she was there and supportive from the moment we got the call for help from the students at the LGBT group of Fairmont College. JR often went to their meetings just to see other LGBT people and they knew him. The irony of the call from them and how the same kind of call from the University of Wyoming student group brought me to Laramie was overwhelmingly surreal.
Romaine was a new activist, her conviction to make a difference forged after the death of her friend Matt. She was not to be a rock star - as she has hoped - but she has since turned her grief to action and not looked back. She went to West Virginia right away that week, and when we heard Rev. Fred Phelps was headed there to protest the response to JR's death I knew there was no one better to work with the community. Romaine, you see, was one of the people responsible for the "Angel Action" that made Phelps's jaw drop in 1999. Let's just say the folks in West Virginia were ready for him.
As I supported Romaine from our Washington DC GLAAD office, I kept thinking - and worrying - about her. I think, though, that she found great satisfaction in being able to help a small town thrust into a similar situation as Laramie, bring grace in response to Phelps's hate and make a difference in the way that would make her friend Matt very proud.
For me, it was an example of how, if we try, we can find some positive way to respond to the horrible hate crimes we deal with on a regular basis. It made me proud that GLAAD was willing to take a chance on a new, inexperienced activist and proud of her for rising to the challenge. We need more of us to do that, to create more links like the one between JR Warren and Matthew Shepard.
To learn more about JR, go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Warren