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Gay-rights activist Judy Shepard, thrust into the public spotlight upon the tragic death of her son Matthew in 1998, urged young gay people to break bonds and shatter barriers during a panel discussion last night at the Kennedy School Forum.
“Come out,” Shepard told the young gays in the audience. “You have to be role models and show them that we’re everywhere. We should be all telling our stories.”
Shepard spoke of the positive affirmation of gay-straight alliances, which are now active in thousands of school districts across the country, and of the important role the media play in portraying gay people positively. She also encouraged middle-aged and older gay men and women to reach out to their younger peers.
“There’s been such a wall between my demographic and your demographic all these years because of ignorance and fear, and we need to tear that wall down by talking to each other,” she said.
Michael Glatze, co-founder of Young Gay America, spoke of how different the experience of being gay has become for the younger generation.
“Gay doesn’t mean what it did twenty years ago,” he said. “It’s not about a big dangerous world. It’s about our world.” He stressed the importance of finding allies and building alliances, both inside and outside the gay community.
Maya Keyes, the lesbian daughter of Republican Party activist Alan Keyes, took a more cautious role about coming out, calling it an individual decision. “Each person has to analyze the situation for themselves and see if it’s safe,” she said. Keyes remains estranged from her own family after going public with her sexuality.
Panelists also contemplated the important role that large institutions must play in advancing the cause of civil rights in America.
“If we don’t challenge those institutions to make changes, it will make change all the more difficult,” said Chris Medeiros, director of admissions, recruitment and financial aid at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. “Big institutions have to be involved and they have to be as accountable as individual people because of the power they yield.”
The conversation included a discussion about school bullies and the intimidation young gay people face growing up. “If you’re a bystander, you are part of the problem,” Shepard said.
The Forum was co-sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics and the Human Rights Campaign.
Photos: Doug Gavel