Saturday, October 17, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Slaying `Would Seem To Be The Biggest Gay News Story Of All Time'

The Dallas Morning News

Ten teenagers, wielding pipes and nail-studded boards, mauled Paul Broussard on a city street. Two members of a neo-Nazi group lured Fred Mangione from a suburban tavern and stabbed him 35 times. Three men ambushed Thanh Nguyen as he snacked in a park; yelling slurs they beat, robbed, stripped and finally shot him.

The victims, all slain in recent years, were gay men out in public with gay friends. Their convicted killers, authorities say, were driven by hatred of gays and picked their targets at random.

And though just as vicious as Matthew Shepard's murder in Wyoming, none of these cases caused a national outcry. Experts who track hate crimes say they've never seen a gay victim inspire the reaction they've seen to the image of a diminutive college kid lashed to a fence: presidential pleas for hate-crimes legislation, a far-flung series of candlelight vigils, rallies on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and a funeral played prominently on network newscasts.

San Diego journalist Rex Wockner, who compiles gay-related news and disseminates it online to hundreds of editors, called the situation unprecedented.

"Suffice it to say this would seem to be the biggest gay news story of all time," he wrote.

In explaining the outpouring, people on opposing sides of the country's debate over homosexuality agree on this much: Gays and lesbians seem more visible, more human, than ever before - and so inhumanity packs a powerful new wallop.

Gays appear in the media no longer just as flamboyant spectacle, but also as soldiers and athletes and Republicans. The question is not their presence but their rights: Should they be allowed to serve openly in the military? Get married? Get ordained? Sue for job discrimination?

"Even 10 years ago, and certainly 20 years ago, talking about homosexuals was in many instances a theoretical discussion," said Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist preacher from Louisiana who heads the gay-friendly Interfaith Alliance in Washington, D.C. "Now when we talk about gays and lesbians, we're talking about individuals with whom we work and with whom we worship.

"Even people who have moral questions about homosexuality have friends who are gay."

A spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, sponsor of a national advertising campaign that promotes conversion therapy for gays and lesbians, concurred.

"There is a heightened awareness of who's homosexual and who's not," said Heather Farish. "It might be a mother or brother or sister or daughter."

Wayne Besen, spokesman for the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, put it this way: "Matthew became a symbol because the boy next door was hung up like a scarecrow. People saw him as their son or little brother."

The timing of his death Monday has fed the fires of grief and reaction: It came as Congress was considering a bill making it easier for federal prosecutors to tackle hate-crime cases, and just four months after another horrific killing made national news - that of a Jasper, Texas, black man who authorities say was dragged to his death and beheaded by white supremacists.

Shepard "captured our imagination the way James Byrd did," Besen said.

Besen's organization has accused conservatives of fomenting hatred of gays in recent months, citing everything from the conversion ads to top congressional Republicans' denunciations of homosexuality as sin and addiction.

"They create a climate and environment of intolerance and give license to those who seek to vent their rage or frustration on an entire community," Human Rights Campaign Executive Director Elizabeth Birch said Wednesday.

Farish vehemently rejects such allegations. "Don't blame AA because a drunk was beat up," she said.

Farish said gay activists are making too much of Shepard and his death. "We mourn for him as well," she said, "but we also mourn that he's being used."

Responds William Waybourn, a Washington public-relations consultant who has led Dallas and national gay-rights groups: "This community is not looking for martyrs - but handed them, we certainly use them."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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