Most of the people I celebrate during Samhain are people I knew personally in my life. However, today I want to write about people who helped pave the way for the rights of LGBT people.
In October of 1998, I was 13 years-old and had been closer to accepting my sexuality. I told a few close friends and my family, all of whom were extremely accepting. Soon after, a friend told someone else and the rumors began. I was the victim of taunting and got into a few fights, but overall, people were adjusting their attitudes towards me.
On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked in Laramie, Wyoming. As news coverage continued, I learned that Matthew Shepard was attacked for being gay. Days later, Matthew passed away from the injuries he received during the attack. This was the first time I really understood how dangerous it was to be gay in a small town.
Willard, Ohio, where I grew up, was pretty similar to Laramie. The town was situated in an area dominated by farming, railroads, and factories. Saying Willard was conservative in an understatement. I’m pretty sure there are still more churches in Willard than traffic lights. With this in mind, my safety became a constant worry. My family wouldn’t let me walk home from school anymore. My friends and I were resigned to spending time at each other’s homes, and the taunting and physical threats increased.
However, after Matthew’s attack, the presence of LGBT allies increased. I remember being shoved in the locker room in gym and having to (aggressively) straight football players come to my defense. Another time, I was being bullied while waiting for my parents to pick me up. A parent of another student overheard and waited with me until my parents arrived. Although I felt like an even bigger outcast than before, I was humbled by the support I received around me.
One of my biggest bullies was this guy named Chance. He came from an ultra-conservative family and made it his mission to make my life hell. I didn’t take it too seriously because he was a grade lower than me and by the time he began his barrage of torment, I had grown more secure in who I was. I remember that we had a conversation during a study hall one day. He tried to harass me by saying “How can you be so disgusting? Are you really okay with people thinking you’re an abomination?” I simply replied “Yeah, I couldn’t care less what someone like you thinks about me.” That was the end of the conversation and I don’t recall any other encounters with him.
The year after I graduated, I got word that Chance had killed himself. I didn’t ask too many questions, but felt sad that someone would kill themselves before they really had a chance to live. A little while later I heard that Chance had come out to his parents, who abused him physically and mentally, before ultimately disowning him. I’m not sure if any of this is true because small towns are ground zero for rumors, but in a sick way it made sense to me. People tend to project their own insecurities onto other people.
On Samhain 1998, I lit a candle of my Samhain altar for Matthew. I mourned his death, but thanked him for giving the ultimate sacrifice to bring national attention to the dangers of being gay in the U.S. On Samhain 2004, I added a candle for Chance. I prayed that regardless of the situation that led to him taking his life that he would find peace in the next life.
After reading Gay Witchcraft by Christopher Penczak, I found an ancestor prayer for the leant their hands to the gay rights movement. Every year since, as I do now, I light a purple candle on my altar and recite this prayer.
“To Sappho and Socrates, Aristotle and Alexander, we call to the ancient ancestors of our tribe.
To Caesar and Hadrian, we thank you for your power.
To Michelangelo and Leonardo, we thank you for your visions.
To Byron and Whitman, Wilde and Stein, we thank you for your words.
To Uncle Aleister and the Faeries past, we thank you for your magick.
To Those with the Triangles who died in the concentration camps.
To Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, and all those who gave their lives in the struggle for awareness, equality, and healing.
We thank you for paving the way for us. Blessed may you be in this world and in all others[i].”
[i] Adapted from Gay Witchcraft: Empowering the Tribe by Christopher Penczak