April 7, 2013

A poet's promise

Leslea Newman feels a powerful and deeply personal connection with Matthew Shepard, and has made it a mission to keep his memory alive by spreading a message of tolerance and compassion.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

On a Tuesday night in early October 1998, Matthew Shepard was kidnapped from a bar in Laramie, Wyo., taken out to the country, beaten, bound to a fence and left for dead.

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Matthew Shepard

Courtesy photo

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“October Mourning” was written to honor the legacy of Matthew Shepard.

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LESLEA NEWMAN will host a reading at 7 p.m. Monday at the Peaks Island Community Center, 129 Island Ave.; and at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Decary Hall at the University of New England's Biddeford campus, 11 Hill Beach Road. Both are free and open to the public.

He was found alive 18 hours later, still tied to that fence. He never regained consciousness, and died the following Monday.

One of the last things he did before he was taken from the bar was attend a meeting of the University of Wyoming's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Association. Shepard, who was gay, helped plan the school's Gay Awareness Week, which was to begin later that week.

The featured speaker was Leslea Newman, a writer and poet from Massachusetts best known for her children's classic, "Heather Has Two Mommies."

This week, Newman will be in Portland to discuss her latest book of poetry, "October Mourning," which honors Shepard's memory, and talk to people about tolerance, compassion and outrage.

Shepard's murder drew national attention. His attackers were convicted, and are imprisoned. His story became the subject of a play, "The Laramie Project," as well as several books and movies. He has been memorialized in song, and hate-crime legislation has been written and signed into law as a result of his murder.

Now, almost 15 years since Shepard's death, Newman worries that young people may not be aware of his story and that others might forget it. She believes it is her obligation to keep his story alive.

"I feel that his name is woven into the fabric of my life forever," Newman said by phone from her home in western Massachusetts. "When I was at the campus, I made a promise to his friends that I would do what I could to keep his name alive. Writing this book was a way to educate people about Matthew, to further his legacy and create a safer world."

She never met Matthew. He died the day she arrived on campus for her talk, five days after his attack.

Newman will present three programs this week, two of which are open to the public. She will host a reading at 7 p.m. Monday at the Peaks Island Community Center on Island Avenue; and will talk at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Decary Hall at the University of New England's Biddeford campus, 11 Hill Beach Road.

She also will present a program on Tuesday at The Waynflete School in Portland, though the Waynflete assembly is not open to the public.

Newman's appearance coincides with the national Day of Silence on April 19, a student-led effort that brings attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment. Students who participate take a vow of silence as a way to illustrate the silencing effect of bullying and harassment.

The issue, Newman said, is as timely now as ever. Because of the brutality of his murder and the pure hatred toward gays expressed by the two young men who were convicted in his killing, Shepard became and remains a national symbol.

But there's still a lot of intolerance, ignorance and bigotry among young people, she said.

As a writer with a national audience whose own story is linked to Shepard's because of the confluence of events, she feels she has a duty to do this work.

"I feel more strongly than ever that it's important -- as an adult, as an out lesbian, as someone who has been given the privilege of being a role model for young people -- to have passion and outrage. Kids are still being bullied," she said.

"We cannot afford one more person's suicide. We have to figure out a way for kids to feel safe enough that they do not bully other kids. We must work together to make everyone feel like a valued human being."

(Continued on page 2)

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Leslea Newman

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