Two Men Killed Matthew Shepard: Millions Helped

07/28/2015 11:05 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2016

Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is a disturbing documentary; disturbing because it reminds us of a painful incident. A young man who looked more like a boy, barely over 5 feet tall, weighing in around 100 pounds, was viciously beaten to death. The attackers took him and tied him to a fence overlooking Laramie, Wyoming, where he was a college student.

It hurts to be reminded of what was done to Matthew that night. The deputy who arrived first on the scene said his face was covered with blood from the beating, except for a streak under each eye where his tears had washed it away. His killers said he begged for his life, pleading for them to stop. They ignored him.

Matthew's death is disturbing, disturbing to his friends, and disturbing to other gay people, and even disturbing to some who hate gays. Since Matthew's murder, conservatives and religious fundamentalists have done their level best to smear this boy, to insult him, to imply he deserved it. Of course he deserved it; he was a faggot. "Those who do such things are worth of death," these Christians endlessly repeat in sermon after sermon.

Watch the faces of these people as they shout their hate. See how contorted and twisted they become. They scream and are consumed with anger. They pray for blood. When they feel safe, when they think the world isn't watching -- and sometimes when it is -- they lash out. They take their fists and pummel the "queer," knocking him to the ground, stomping on his head, hoping to kill; wanting to kill; needing to kill.

Two young men admitted to killing Shepard. They said they knew he was gay and they didn't like gays. They said they wanted to rob him. They decided to pretend to be gay, befriending Matthew, so once they had his trust they could take him someplace where they could mug him safely. That night they took a pistol and smashed Matthew's skull in four different places. They took his shoes and tied him to the wooden fence on the hill.

The two young men then returned to town and attacked two Hispanic men as well. They were arrested and police found Matthew's shoes, credit cards and blood on the pistol in the pickup.

Across this country, ministers get up and tell their congregations, "They who do such things are worthy of death." At anti-gay rallies, Christians hold up signs saying, "God hates fags."

That night those two young men weren't alone -- not in spirit. Standing with them were thousands of preachers who have called for the death of gay people. Standing with them were millions who had smeared, slandered and dehumanized gay people.

People who snicker at "fag" jokes, rappers who spew out hate, housewives who talk about "one of them" while having tea. All of them were there. All of them played a role.

Each contributed to the hate. Each gave some sort of permission. This kind of hate requires one to dehumanize. You have to show "they" aren't "us."

They are different.

They aren't like us decent people.

They are a threat.

They are out to destroy the family.

They are responsible for natural disasters because God is punishing us for being too tolerant.

They have to be dealt with.

All of it creates an atmosphere, a sense of permission telling the fag bashers that what they are doing is something good, something necessary -- something not at all dissimilar to what God himself intends to do to these people.

So they act. The jokes gave them permission. The snickers gave them permission. Sermons from the pulpit sanctioned their hate and baptized their bigotry with God's approval.

Hate is always imperialistic; never satisfied with contempt from afar. It needs to get involved. It needs to act. It needs blood on the knuckles. It needs to see pain and suffering.

Those two killers hated. They heard such hate was okay. They heard it in jokes, in music and in sermons. They acted on what they had been so carefully taught for so many years, by so many people.

That night Matthew Shepard was alone. His killers, however, were surrounded by millions of allies.