The same day folks went to the polls, attendees and speakers with “I Voted” stickers at the Third Annual University of Alaska Southeast Power & Privilege Symposium made their hopes for the nation’s future known.
Keynote speakers Dennis and Judy Shepard and Oscar Vazquez addressed the ways otherness and intolerance had impacted their lives, and breakout sessions identified problem areas for power and privilege and sparked discussion and ideas for producing change.
All plainly wished for a more balanced and inclusive future.
“In 20 years, our hope is our foundation is closed down because it is no longer needed,” Dennis Shepard told the Capital City Weekly after he and his wife delivered the event-closing evening keynote.
The Shepards are the parents of Matthew Shepard, who was killed 20 years ago as a result of anti-gay violence. They started the Matthew Shepard foundation to help prevent similar hate crimes.
With both hope and humor, they spoke about how things have mostly improved for the LGBTQ community and can continue to improve, but said in the last two years there has been some backsliding.
“They’re taking things away from us that would put us on an equal playing field with them,” Judy Shepard said.
However, with midterm election results still unknown, the attitude was mostly optimistic.
“Today is a new day,” she said. “There are more of us than them. There are more people who want an accepting, loving world than don’t.”
Dennis Shepard said both allies and members of the LGBTQ community should be mindful of that and exercise patience with one another.
“Both sides need to work together on this,” Dennis Shepard said.
He gave the audience the homework assignment of fighting for statewide and national laws protecting LGBTQ employees from discrimination, and both Shepards spoke to the importance of voting.
“To all that voted today, thank you, you are making change,” Dennis Shepard said. “To all that didn’t vote, shame on you. You are making change.”
Vazquez, a DREAM-er, science, technology, engineering and math advocate, and veteran, spoke about his experience as an undocumented immigrant and the interest in STEM that led to the events depicted in the book “Spare Parts.”
“I don’t have a polished presentation,” Vazquez said. “All I have is my story.”
Vazquez arrived in Phoenix, Arizona, from Mexico at the age of 12 and became interested in robotics as a way to escape the monotony of daily class work and take a trip to Santa Barbara, California.
On a budget of $800, Vazquez and three classmates took first place in a robotics competition against collegiate teams, including MIT.
Afterward, he attended Arizona State University, but even with a degree, he said it was difficult to find work while undocumented.
“I always felt that I was less than someone because I didn’t have a piece of paper,” Vazquez said.
In attempt to secure a green card, he returned to Mexico and applied for one, which was quickly denied because Vazquez had been in the U.S. for longer than a year after turning 18.
Vazquez, who had a 1-year-old child and wife at this point, appealed based on hardship his young family would encounter without him.
The appeal was denied, but after Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Il., shared Vazquez’s story, he was granted a green card, and decided to serve in the military.
“Growing up, I always felt less,” Vazquez said. “When I joined the military, that really went away. Not once did I think the Taliban were particularly trying to shoot me more because I was from Mexico.”
The comment drew laughs, but Vazquez subsequently became emotional when he said no person should have to be shot at to see themselves in the American Dream.
“I don’t think anyone should have to go through that,” Vazquez said.
Julie York Coppens, director of outreach and engagement for Perseverance Theatre, led a breakout session about classic stories that have aged into cringe-worthiness.
The breakout session was primarily driven by personal experience with theater, not as a Perseverance Theatre official.
Coppens talked about the necessity of revisiting classics in theater and considering what elements need revision and why that can be necessary in order to tell stories that have merits that have elevated them to classic status.
“It’s hard work, it’s painful, but you have to engage,” Coppens said.
She cited a recent revival of “Carousel” that played the material straight and flopped, compated to recent takes on “Oklahoma” or “The Tempest” that thought outside traditional constraints on gender, sexual orientation and race when casting.
Coppens said it can be powerful for those who are sometimes othered to see relatable characters depicted in well-known works.
“What does it mean for these people who haven’t seen themselves to see themselves represented in these classics?” Coppens said.
Shepards Q & A
A while after their keynote speech, the Shepards were still taking time to talk to, take photos with and hug anyone who wanted a moment of time with the couple.
However, after a long day and with an early morning flight impending, they took time to answer some questions for the Capital City Weekly.
(As a white, CIS person) every so often someone sizes you up and decides you look enough like them, and they’ll say something repugnant. How do handle that?
DS: I say, ‘What did you say? Are you sure? Here’s something you need to know about that.’
JS: You don’t get anywhere by acting pissed off or pissing them off. You have to still use logic as much as you can.
DS: Still be respectful.
JS: Still be respectful, but you’re not going to change anyone’s mind by making them feel stupid.
DS: You’re not going to change someone’s mind overnight.
JS: I had some seatmates on a plane, and mostly they just shut up, but one, it turns out we had some common ground, and we had quite a conversation.
Does this make it all 50 states that you’ve been to?
DS: Yes, well, that she has been to.
When this started 20 years ago, did you ever imagine you’d hit all 50 states?
JS: We didn’t think we’d still be in existence in 20 years.
DS: Fifty states plus, Puerto Rico, Washington D.C., and 25 countries for the state department.
JS: For the Obama administration, in case you needed it clarified.
When you see someone interact with and talk about LGBTQ issues, what do you think is going to age as poorly in 20 years as things that were said in 1998?
DS: My hope is we don’t even have to worry about it. That our foundation will close because it’s no longer needed. But after two years of this administration, it’s going to take years of repair and healing to get back to where we were in 2016. That’s not just in this country, it’s around the world.
JS: The problem is the haters are out now.
Tonight, several people asked questions about Matthew and his death based on misinformation, how do you battle with the personal memory of your son as a person vs. his public status as a symbol and an ongoing cause?
JS: I think it’s just a matter of we know the truth. People tend to make it whatever they need it to be.
DS: That’s why she wrote the book to show Matt with his goodness and faults. He was just a kid.
JS: Matt wouldn’t have wanted that ideology that was coming out about the perfection of Matthew. Nobody knew Matt, everyone thought they knew Matthew. It was disconcerting, so that’s why the film, “Matt Shepard Was a Friend of Mine,” was also made.
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.