The way to honor Matthew Shepard

Our school system is structured with the implication of heterosexuality

OPINION Nearly 10 years ago Matthew Shepard was crucified on a fence in Wyoming because he was gay. Recently a bill bearing his name failed to pass the United States Senate.

S 1105, the Matthew Shepard Act, would "provide Federal assistance to States, local jurisdictions, and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes." Its supporters are still pushing for its passage, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wants to see it approved early this year. Here is why Congress should not bother:

Nearly 1,500 hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation were reported in the United States in 2006. To reduce that number we do not need a bill that would give the local sheriff a cash grant after some kid decides to crucify another kid because he likes to kiss boys. We need education.

Our school system is structured with the implication of heterosexuality. Any information that be construed as other than strictly heterosexual is rarely taught. James Baldwin is widely read in schools for his writings on the difficulties of living in a racist world. His writings on the difficulties of living in a homophobic world, however, are largely ignored. "The Fire Next Time," an essay on how to "end the racial nightmare" that blacks endure, is more widely read than Giovanni's Room, which begins with the gay lover of the main male character about to be guillotined.

Most students know Alexander the Great as one of the most important generals of history, conquering most of the known world by the time of his death at 33. Some know of his three wives. Few know of Hephaistion, his lifelong companion, with whom it is widely acknowledged he had a sexual relationship. Through such selective edits of history, students learn (falsely) that heterosexuality is the norm and has been throughout time.

With this background, is it any wonder that hate crimes based on sexual orientation accounted for more than 15 percent of all hate crimes reported in the US in 2006?

These statistics will not be affected by reactionary laws. The Matthew Shepard Act will not change them. It will not allow him to celebrate another birthday. Nor will it help to ensure that no more children are robbed of their birthdays. The best it can hope for is to make sure their persecutors spend their birthdays in jail.

We expect schools to teach our children about history, math, and English and, by extension, about society. When they learn about Alexander but not Hephaistion, about "The Fire Next Time" but not Giovanni's Room, about the Seneca Falls Convention but not Stonewall, they come to understand that heterosexuality is expected, that it is normal. And few children wish to be abnormal.

What we need in our schools is a curriculum that acknowledges the different sexualities and perceptions of sexuality that have existed in history. Tell the students about Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and Alexander the Great's Hephaistion. From there, why don't we let the students decide for themselves what is "normal"?

Matthew Shepherd's attackers are serving consecutive life sentences in prison. S 1105 might send more people to prison with them. But it cannot prevent them from committing the crimes. Education might. And wouldn't that be a better legacy to leave Shepard?

Christina Luu

Christina Luu is a student in the Economics Department at Stanford University. She is also a fellow of the Roosevelt Institution's Center on Education, the nation's first student-run think tank. She plans to graduate in spring 2010.