A vigil honoring hate crime victims was held in the Multicultural Center last Wednesday. The annual Hate Crimes Vigil is held on the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death, a University of Wyoming student who was murdered because of his sexual orientation in 1998. Angie Nichols is UMD's director of GLBT Services, and was in college at the time of Shepard's murder. "I was at … Oberlin College, and we held a vigil there,” she said. “(We thought) who would take advantage of him and beat him so senselessly?" Although Shepard's murder was the reason for the first vigil back in 1998, it has since expanded to an event for the remembrance of victims of all forms of discrimination.
"(The vigil) has been about remembering, but also about moving forward," said UMD junior Megan Poettgen, who organized and led the vigil. "Just by being here and talking about these things, we're changing the world. I want everyone to walk out of here with the memory of Matthew Shepard and David Byrd and all those who have been hurt, killed or harmed for just being who they are or for fighting for what they believe in. I want us to remember, and I want us to move forward and continue their work."
About a dozen attended Wednesday's vigil in the Multicultural Center. "I wish we would have had a bigger turnout," said Poettgen. "But the people who were there were open, and I think there were a lot of good things said. The people who come are … already involved (with GLBT issues). It's the people who don't come that I wish we could reach."
Testimonials from the attendees revealed that acts of discrimination are still common, on campus and off. "We've seen racial or hate crimes on campus pretty much every year," said Katie Muller, chairperson of the Queer and Allied Student Union. "Last year was the blackface incident … and it still keeps happening. It's really unfortunate."
UMD is ranked as one of the top 25 GLBT-friendly campuses in the nation by Campus Pride, a nonprofit organization that works to advance GLBT issues on campuses.
"One of the things that makes me most happy about this university is our strategic plan," said junior Jacob Froelich. "We have a chancellor who is committed to doing what he can do (about GLBT issues). Administration can only do so much, and it's going to be about students changing. People changing people."
Poettgen hopes that events like the vigil serve as a reminder that additional progress is needed. "People forget that (discrimination) happens,” she said. “They just see the sunny side. And people who aren't part of a minority group don't always see … that there is still a general culture that people don't always feel safe in."
Using a slur may mean little among friends, but it can be devastating to someone who overhears it. "The things people say don't go unheard," Muller said.
Nichols agreed. "Remember to keep your language in check," she said. "(UMD) is supposed to be a safe place."
BY JOHN FAHNENSTIEL firstname.lastname@example.org