When Jason Marsden was invited to speak in Gillette about issues facing Wyoming's gay community, the Matthew Shepard Foundation director saw it as an opportunity to discuss self-harm, a growing epidemic among gay youth.
The event, planned almost a year ago, is set for Wednesday, to coincide with the one-and-a-half-year anniversary of the founding of the Gillette chapter of PFLAG, a group that advocates for the gay community.
What no one could have known was that the occasion would fall one day after the funeral for Trevor O'Brien. The 20-year-old was found dead March 8 from an apparent suicide at a Gillette park. O'Brien's death followed months of harassment for being openly gay.
“I’ll be giving the talk I was expected to give, but it might be more poignant,” Marsden said of the terrible coincidence. “I sense the community is hurting. I know some members of PFLAG were acquainted with Trevor.”
Gillette’s chapter of PFLAG, formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of People who are Lesbian and Gay, is hosting the event in partnership with Gillette College. The national organization is a support network for the gay community but also a vehicle for families and friends to become involved, find support and become advocates on issues like LGBT rights.
The Gillette group's members were familiar with O'Brien and his experiences with discrimination. Those experiences led the group to reach out to him.
On his Facebook page, O’Brien documented being assaulted for being gay. He posted a photo that showed bruises and scratches on his face and hand. He also posted after an incident in December when his car was chalked with a homophobic slur and peppered with eggs. In each, the young man wrote defiantly that he could not, and would not, change despite the harassment.
O’Brien’s use of social media caught the attention of Robert Hoffman, vice president of Gillette’s PFLAG chapter.
He reached out to the young man through Facebook, offering his support and friendship.
Hoffman, too, had experienced harassment, mostly in high school. He tolerated it then by being quiet and trying to ignore it. As an adult he realized that you have to stand up in defense of people, he said.
And that’s what he tried to do for O’Brien.
O’Brien’s experience also galvanized PFLAG to work on a city ordinance protecting gay people from discrimination and violence. PFLAG director Karin Ebertz met with the chief of police and the city administrator in January, and the city has been supportive, she said.
Gillette has a diverse gay community. Members of PFLAG range from people in their 20s to their 60s, Ebertz said. Half of the members have family or friends who are gay (Ebertz has a gay daughter). The other half are people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Most people who attend the group's meetings attest to routine harassment for being gay. But they hope things are changing for the better, said Ebertz.
“We all want our friends and families who identify to be happy and to live as full a life, and as open a life, as we can,” she said. “It has a lot to do with being able to meet people and hear their stories and know they are just as boring as you and me.”
Tragedies such as O’Brien's death can bring people together and galvanize communities. That unity is visible now in Gillette, showing that Wyoming does not support violence or malice against gay youth, said Marsden. A similar awareness followed the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, Marsden said.
But it’s important that Wyoming not wait for such events, he said.
“We can’t rely on tragedies like this making us a better state,” he said. “The cost is far too high. It’s urgent. Kids are really hurting now.”
Marsden said he believes Wyoming has a culture of tolerance and generosity.
“Wyoming doesn’t have to dig that deep to get this right. It needs the will to do so,” he said. “We need to say, ‘You know what? Gay and lesbian kids are really hurting in our communities. We need to be there for them.’ It is a simple yes.”
Part of the purpose of Wednesday's event is to get word out that there is support, Ebertz said.
“They are our sons and daughters,” she said. “They are our coworkers. They are our friends.”
O'Brien's death is also a reminder that humiliation can be dangerous and painful, Ebertz said.
“Anti-gay language and slurs have consequences, and those consequences are that voices can be silenced,” she said.
Hoffman remains shocked by what happened to his friend.
He reached out to O’Brien through Facebook about a week before the young man’s death. It was just a check-in to see how O’Brien was doing. Things were going good, O’Brien wrote back.
Follow education reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner.