What Killed Matthew Shepard?
What Killed Dr. Barnett Slepian?
By Li Onesto
Revolutionary Worker #980, November 1, 1998
Like millions of other people, I was angered and outraged at the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard. Like many others, his senseless death made me ask some serious questions about the society we live in.
What kind of person kidnaps and tortures to death a 21-year-old student--simply because he is gay? What made the murderers feel, as one of them said, that after Matthew Shepard supposedly came on to them, that they had "to teach him a lesson"? Why are attacks against homosexuals on the rise around the country?
Two weeks later, I turned on the radio and heard the news of another murder. Late Friday night, on October 23, Dr. Barnett Slepian had been gunned down by a single shot from a high-powered rifle in upstate New York. A 51-year-old doctor with four children, who had dedicated himself to giving women abortions, had been shot down in cold blood.
What's behind a so-called "right to life" movement that continues to unleash clinic bombers and murderers? What is unleashing the anti-abortion fanatics? And what is the thinking behind their murderous acts?
In thinking about these questions, I remembered one day this past summer when I was down at the lake. Lots of other people were enjoying the beautiful weather and having picnics. One family--a husband, wife and two young sons, about 8 and 10 years old, were sitting right near us. Suddenly an ugly scene developed. The crewcut father started yelling, military style, at one of the boys because he didn't come right out of the water when he was called. He yelled at the kid until he was in tears and then punished him by making him sit off by himself. The father stuck his finger in the boy's face and said, "This is what happens when you don't obey me." The wife didn't say anything, even though I could clearly see she didn't like what was happening.
Later the father started playing catch with his son, taunting him with every toss. The kid couldn't throw the ball very well and the father let him know this was unacceptable, sissy behavior. At one point, the ball sailed over the boy's head and rolled past the mom who was sitting with the other son on her lap. The father ran after the ball. Then stormed over to his wife and angrily yelled, "Why didn't you get up and get the ball, are you too lazy?" She didn't say anything.
I remember thinking at the time how this was but the tip of the iceberg--a glimpse at the brutality of the patriarchal family and at how certain oppressive roles in society are reinforced. I thought, what's going to happen to this kid when he grows up? And if this is the way this guy treats his wife and kids in public, what happens behind closed doors?
Young males in this society are taught a lot of bullshit about relations between men and women. In a thousand different ways, boozhwah culture tries to inculcate them with the male, macho role. They are taught that they're better than females. They are brought up in a society which treats women like sexual objects, where sex is a commodity. They are told they should be the "head of the household." They go to schools that have no sex education. They go to churches that preach know-nothing ignorance--that abortion is murder and homosexuality is a "sin before God" and a "disease that must be cured."
How does someone who grows up embracing all this react when they meet Matthew Shepard? What does someone who is taught all this think when a woman gets an abortion because she doesn't want to be a mother? How does someone with these ideas look at a doctor who performs abortions?
Patriarchy, male supremacy and the subordination of women are integral to the system. But today, the very workings of capitalism are undermining the traditional patriarchal family.
Today, more and more women can and must work outside the home--leading to much change and turmoil in society. And one consequence of this, is that in various ways, and among different sections of the people, the basis of the "traditional family" and "traditional family values" is eroding.
This worries the ruling class. The Republican Party's 1980 platform on "family values" explicitly stated that it was important that mothers and homemakers be supported, because of their role "in maintaining the values of this country."
Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition explained that his group's purpose is to "help Congress as it charts a cultural agenda" to address "what we believe is the most pressing issue in American politics today, and that is the fraying of the social fabric, the coarsening of the culture, the breakdown of the family."
And remember Dan Quayle during Bush's campaign on "family values"? He charged that a "breakdown of family structure, personal responsibility, and social order" were the cause of the L.A. rebellion and then went on to attack the TV character Murphy Brown for being an unmarried mother.
I don't think the ruling class wants to--in fact they know they can't--shove women back into the sole role of "wife and mother." But defenders of the status quo still have to reassert and re-enforce all the values associated with the "traditional family" and women's oppression.
I am reminded of something RCP Chairman Bob Avakian wrote in his essays on morality: "It is not surprising that, in the face of changes which tend to undermine or cause upheaval within that system--to say nothing of direct challenges to it--the ruling class of this society more aggressively asserts the authority of its `traditional morality' along with sharpening and more ruthlessly wielding its sword of repression. Thus, it is not only William Bennett and other `Conservatives' who are waging a holy crusade for `The Family' and `Family Values,' but they are joined and rivaled in this by the Democrats and `liberals' of the ruling class."
Understanding this has helped me get a deeper view of how women's oppression and ruling class attempts to reassert the patriarchal family are behind the reactionary anti-abortion movement in this country--with its "right-to-life" lambs, crawling on their knees at abortion clinics, begging young pregnant women to submit to motherhood.
And this understanding also helps explain how upholding traditional "family values" and attacking anything seen as going against these values, is unleashing people like the murderers of Matthew Shepard.
Voices high up in the government are leading these ugly crusades. Republican, anti-abortion, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott ensured that the nomination of James Hormel as U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg was held up purely because of Hormel's homosexuality. And Lott recently stated publicly that he thinks gay people are sinners and are sick. He compared homosexuals to alcoholics, sex addicts and kleptomaniacs.
And the Christian fascist movement has always seen their crusade against homosexuals as very much bound up with being against abortion and upholding "family values" and the "traditional family." At a 1997 conservative conference in Washington, one speaker decreed legal contraception and abortion as the "homosexualization of heterosexual acts" and bemoaned that non-procreative trends among white Europeans was leading to "race death."
In 1984, the Birth Control Institute in San Diego was bombed after months of picketing and hostile confrontations by Christian fundamentalists led by Rev. Dorman Owens. Owens also demanded the death penalty for lesbians and gay men and led people to picket a local gay-oriented church, which also received bomb threats.
The Promise Keepers, a Christian fascist movement of men dedicated to building a new-agey, traditional patriarchal family was founded by Bill McCartney--who is against abortion and was one of the leaders of Colorado's anti-gay rights movement.
In response to the murder of Matthew Shepard, James Dobson, leader of the Christian fascist group "Focus on the Family" raved on TV that same-sex relationships undermine "the fabric of civilization."
And then there's the book published by "Focus on the Family" by Linda Weber, Mom: You're Incredible!--written with questions for study and reflection in prayer groups. Weber warns of the danger of non-traditional families led by single mothers. She says, "Many experts believe maternal dominance has a direct and extremely influential link to sexual disorientation: `Boys from homes in which the mother asserted herself as the leader exhibited more feminine sex-role preferences than did boys from homes in which the father was the leader.'"
Later Weber offers this advice: "The Master Designer wrote His parenting manual, the Bible, with the intention that each child should enjoy the influence of both a mother and a father. The complete puzzle shows the necessity of the masculine leader to ensure the growth of a strong family. A home with a healthy mom and a healthy dad wrapped around the Living Lord is a home not easily broken. It's a home where the sons grew like `strong trees' and the daughters become like `pillars adorning a palace.'"
The Refuse & Resist! slogan, "It's all one attack!" is right on time. We need a powerful movement to unite all who can be united to fight the reactionary agenda being promoted by the ruling class. And from a revolutionary point of view, there is a lot at stake in this battle. We revolutionaries stand for getting rid of women's oppression, getting rid of patriarchy and doing away with all the social forms and ideas which uphold the subordination of women. And we are dedicated to fighting alongside others against the reactionary assertion and enforcement of "traditional family values" and the repressive patriarchal family, and all its murderous consequences.
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