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The Matthew Shepard Foundation (Dude's Cause of Choice)


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Slain gay man's mom works to get out the vote

paynter.jpgBy SUSAN PAYNTER


The current campaign game already was skidding in the usual mud when the Foley scandal poured on an extra layer of slime and let homophobes slide into home.

Suddenly such prejudiced pundits as Patrick Buchanan and outright homophobes such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council have the leeway to fill the airwaves with fetid "statistics" such as the "fact" that this was all predictable since homosexual men are 10, 20, heck, let's make it 40 percent more likely than straights to molest children.

And not even hard questioners like "Hardball's" Chris Matthews are saying "Whoa!" and pointing out that those hoary old pseudoscientific whoppers, first spread by crackpot anti-gay psychologist Dr. Paul Cameron, were debunked back when Buchanan still had a full head of hair.

Fortunately, at the same time that this hot air was rising faster than popcorn flatulence, Judy Shepard -- mom of the murdered Matthew -- was preparing to launch a quieter offensive aimed at getting out the gay and lesbian vote.

It has been eight years since, in a sickening hate crime, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a Wyoming fence and left to die (which he soon did) for the "crime" of being gay.

matthewshepard.jpg AP FILE Matthew Shepard In honor of his life and his youthful zeal for the privilege of voting, the Matthew Shepard Foundation kicked off its own campaign Oct 12, on the day that he died. Ads are appearing this month in more than 30 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender publications across the country with a graphic campaign button featuring Shepard's face and the words "Vote for Me."

"In a sense, he's saying, 'I can no longer vote so please do this for me,' " Susan Shepard told me late last week.

It's ironic that, at the very time that gays are again being bashed for political purposes, Matthew Shepard's passion for political change is calling on gays to cast their ballots.

"When they found his wallet, after the attack, they found his voting registration inside," his mom said. "As soon as he was old enough to vote, one of the first things he did when he moved to a new place was register."

Even in elementary school, young Shepard volunteered to work for local candidates, stuffing envelopes and ringing doorbells. "One day when he was about 9, I remember he was getting his hair cut on Election Day and (was) telling all the beauticians who they should vote for and why," Judy Shepard said. "They couldn't believe that the little guy actually knew what he was talking about."

She thinks her son would be "appalled at the apathy" toward voting within the gay and lesbian community. Exit polling and other research show, she says, that only a shred of those old enough actually vote or get involved in campaigns. "Maybe they feel their vote doesn't count or that the people they do vote for don't accomplish much," she said.

judy.jpg GETTY IMAGES Judy Shepard She wishes that more people realized that, if they voted, they could affect the issues most important to their lives, such as employment and housing and marriage discrimination and the passage of federal hate-crimes legislation.

In a sense, the Foley scandal and the rancid dialogue that it seems to have unleashed actually may backfire, prodding people into action. "If there is one, little, itty-bitty upside, (to the resurgence of anti-gay rhetoric) it's that it could actually bring more gays to the polls," she said.

Maybe, tired of being tarred, gays and lesbians will be stirred to stand up and speak out against all the bogus conspiracy theories about "gay cabals" and "gay mafia cover-ups" of Foley's behavior that are currently circling the blogosphere.

The more times a lie is told, the more it's believed. So it's time, Shepard believes, to counterattack with the truth, "to put to rest the idea of gay men as pedophiles. It distracts from the real story -- that Mark Foley was a predator first and foremost and that being gay had nothing to do with that."

There are signs that something already is happening. In some sifting data recently released by the American Community Survey, part of the U.S. Census Bureau, The Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy concluded that "the turbulent political landscape for gay people might also be a large factor in pulling couples out of the closet."

The survey shows a 30 percent increase in the number of people willing to identify themselves as same-sex couples in the U.S. over the past five years.

And the largest increases were in places -- including Washington -- where gays experienced defeats in the battle for an equal right to marry.

Judy Shepard "just knew" that her son was gay from the time that he was 8 years old, even though it took Matthew 10 more years to tell her.

"He once asked me if I thought gay couples would ever be allowed to marry," Shepard recalled. "I said, 'Maybe in your lifetime, not mine.' But it turned out to be the other way around."


Read about the Matthew Shepard Foundation's "Get Out the Vote" campaign at www.MatthewShepard.org/Vote.

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