Rachel Segal-Sklar is a sophomore at Skidmore College, and co-creator of the Skid TV/Youtube series: SEXILED.
Monday night on May 18th, the New York City Anti-Violence Project's Heroes Council held a very interesting and rousing conversation between Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard and Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and Sharon Stapel, Executive Director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project. Emmy Award-winning journalist Ashleigh Banfield of TruTV, who is also known for her work at NBC/MSNBC, moderated the event. The event took place at the Time Warner Center in NYC with about 100 invited guests attending. Central themes of the discussion were The Matthew Shepard Act, the anti-hate crimes legislation that is being considered by the U.S. Senate during this current session, and the broader theme of the need to achieve full civil rights for gay people and their families.
Ms. Banfield displayed her experience throughout the night, and made the environment of the discussion very comfortable for everyone involved. She kept the mood of the evening generally upbeat and guided the discussion expertly. Ms. Banfield never came off as prying or pushed the boundary of what was appropriate, while still provoking a very stimulating discussion among the two women and some audience members. She provided an atmosphere in which Mrs. Shepard and Ms. Stapel could speak freely and openly without pressure, something that is necessary to make an event like this as successful as it was.
Sharon Stapel presented herself as very intelligent and knowledgeable and addressed each question and issue brought up with a strong answer and very realistic attitude. She took more of a backseat during the conversation, which was appropriate, and added to or supported Mrs. Shepard's responses. Ms. Stapel did not stray from the topics presented and spoke very naturally. She was very informative during the dialogue and seemed like she really understood the "whole picture" of what the GLBTQ community needs to strive toward. Among the points she listed, such as electing the right officials and changing policies and laws, she emphasized the importance of education as a tool for change. It is the only way that we can gain real support from all parts of society, whether it be co-worker, family member, or police officer.
More surprisingly, Mrs. Shepard seemed to understand this as well. While many people probably saw her as a grieving mother trying to educate people about a single issue, she turned out to be deeply invested in the whole movement for acceptance and equality for LGBTQ people. She not only realized that issues such as hate crimes and gay marriage were only stepping stones on the way to total equality, but verbalized ways in which change could be brought about. She was very well spoken and very moving. After many of her remarks, people in the audience would hum in agreement, or be so moved that all they could do was say "wow." Mrs. Shepard presented herself as more than an ally, she felt a part of the movement, considering herself a part of the GLBTQ community, saying, "We're family."
Both women emphasized the need for resources to support education and prevention in order to put an end to hate crimes. They made clear that when one person is harmed by hate violence, it sends a powerful message of vulnerability to every person and community of minorities. In that way, the violence transcends an individual incident. That is why it is especially important to go beyond punitive law enforcement measures to prevent violence.
Overall, the event was a great success. It served as an uplifting yet realistic reminder that " the passage of hate crimes legislation is only the floor, and that the ceiling is the achievement of full equality for all." They were clear that not only is this the final goal but that we are solidly on the road to that end. Both women agreed that we have made tangible progress in the last ten years since the tragic death of Mathew Shepard, but there is still a lot of work to do.
For more information about the New York City Anti Violence Project and the National Coalition of Anti Violence Programs go to www.avp.org.