Colorado university introduces state's 1st gay fraternity
Wyoming hate crime spurs students to promote understanding
|By Jeff Kass / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News|
Colo. - Matthew Shepard, a gay student from the University of Wyoming, was brutally beaten
last fall and left to die on a fence post, his limp body resembling a scarecrow.
Now, Mr. Shepard's death is changing the lives of five men, a university campus and a city. Five Colorado State University students have launched a chapter of Delta Lambda Phi, the first gay fraternity in Colorado and surrounding states. "This is the re-framing, making something positive out of something that was hateful," said CSU professor Jerry Bigner, the fraternity's faculty adviser.
Mr. Shepard was robbed and beaten Oct. 6 in Laramie, Wyo. After he was found, he was transported 65 miles to a Fort Collins hospital, where he died five days later. Police believe he was attacked in part because he was gay. Across the country, rallies and candlelight vigils were held. President Clinton called for expanding the federal hate-crime laws to include crimes based on a victim's sexual orientation, gender or disability. Gay and lesbian groups sought changes in Wyoming, Colorado and other states. Hate-crime law proposals in the Colorado and Wyoming legislatures died in committee. In Fort Collins, voters declined to add sexual orientation to a city human rights ordinance. Although the legal efforts failed, change did occur.
Taking a stand
People who were afraid to speak out or those who were normally not active on gay-rights issue took a stand. As Mr. Shepard, 21, lay dying, Colorado State held its homecoming parade. The Wizard of Oz theme "There's No Place Like Home" had been chosen months in advance, and many floats had scarecrows. At the last minute, derogatory language about gays was added to the scarecrow on a float sponsored by a fraternity and sorority.
Mark Koepsell, director of Greek life for CSU, said the organizations involved are no longer recognized by their national headquarters. Joshua "Ethan" Cordova, Delta Lambda Phi's founding president, said he planned to start a gay fraternity chapter last spring. But when word got around, Mr. Cordova, a sophomore, said he began receiving about 10 angry calls a day. They said things like, "Go home, [expletive]." He also found a dead, bloody rat at his doorstep. Mr. Cordova, a 21-year-old social work major, gave up the fight.
"After Matthew Shepard, I wanted to start the fraternity again," he said, later adding that his death "gave me strength." Delta Lambda Phi is a national fraternity based in Washington and founded in 1986 for "gay, bisexual, and progressive men." Mr. Cordova said that since December, when he renewed efforts, he has received unanimous support through phone calls, e-mails and even a pat on the back. "We're behind you 100 percent," is what Mr. Cordova said one anonymous caller told him.
Two of the five founding members of the fraternity chapter are heterosexual, including Don Alvarez, 36. Starting the fraternity was a way to make a difference and to provide a safe place for gays and others to gather, he said. Mr. Alvarez, who is majoring in creative writing and philosophy, paused when asked whether he would be joining if Mr. Shepard had not died. "I would hope I would be," he said. Co-founder Peter Colussy, 19, said his original fears about joining the fraternity have subsided, noting the two heterosexual members.
"It's going to be hard for anyone to take a stand against a group with open minds," said the commercial tourism major. Mr. Colussy said the group has run into dissenters, such as those opposed to homosexuality for religious reasons. But, he said, "We're not looking for their approval, just their acceptance." The other two co-founders are David Lord, a 21-year-old senior who will serve as communications director, and Tim Daugherty, 21, who works as a disc jockey at a gay bar. Mr. Daugherty, who is heterosexual, met Mr. Shepard through his job. "I like to get in on the ground floor of things," said Mr. Daugherty, a 21-year- old English major. "I could have a say in how it worked. Rather than have it be another beer-guzzling slug-fest, we can turn it into an intellectual fraternity."
Mr. Koepsell said Mr. Shepard's death probably made it easier for students to accept the new fraternity. "Definitely, Matthew Shepard's death raised an awareness on our campus," he said. Spreading the word In the last 18 months, six new chapters or colonies -- chapters in the probationary stage -- of Delta Lambda Phi have been started, including one at the University of North Texas at Denton. The organization has 19 chapters and six colonies across the country, many of them in California.
Gay-rights advocates said that greater awareness of gay issues is encouraging people to acknowledge their homosexuality earlier, sometimes in high school. By college, they have a strong sense of identity and are prepared to form their own institutions. Mr. Bigner, professor of human development and family studies, said that after reeling from a 1992 amendment that opposed gay-rights legislation, Colorado is moving away from its reputation as "the hate state" and returning to its Western roots. "People in the West pride themselves on 'live and let live,' and that's gone to hell in the past five to six years," said Mr. Bigner. "This is a way to get back to that." Also at last month's launch was Sarah Rodrigues, an equine science major who plans to start a lesbian sorority, Lambda Delta Lambda, in the coming months. "We're going to be their sister organization," she said.
In Wyoming, meantime, the two young men accused of killing Mr. Shepard await trials that are expected to start in March. Aaron James McKinney and Russell Arthur Henderson, both 21, are charged with murder and face the death penalty if convicted. Jury selection in Mr. Henderson's trial starts March 24, with opening statements scheduled to begin April 6. Mr. Shepard's mother, Judy Shepard, could not be reached for comment. But she told Dateline NBC in a recent interview that she had trouble with her son being viewed as a martyr. "He's just our son," she said.
Peter Colohan, Delta Lambda Phi vice president of outreach, said his organization had no plans to go to Wyoming because it does not target specific campuses and waits for students to ask about starting chapters. But Mr. Bigner had a more gung-ho attitude. "That's where it ought to go next," he said. "In fact, we'll organize a road trip." Mr. Bigner, who did not know Mr. Shepard personally, said the effort would have fit in well with the young man's career goal to join the diplomatic corps and help people."