Postal service says stamp honoring slain gay college student Shepard too 'negative'

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday March 26, 2024
Share this Post:
Postal service deems a Matthew Shepard U.S. stamp doesn't meet its selection criteria. Courtesy the Shepard stamp campaign committee.<br><br>
Postal service deems a Matthew Shepard U.S. stamp doesn't meet its selection criteria. Courtesy the Shepard stamp campaign committee.

The United States Postal Service is rejecting the idea of a U.S. postal stamp honoring murdered gay college student Matthew Shepard for being too "negative." The reasoning has shocked LGBTQ leaders who have called for such a commemorative stamp to be issued.

Bob Lehman, a gay man who founded American Veterans for Equal Rights based in San Diego, had sent the postal service a letter in support of the Shepard stamp. He was surprised to receive a letter dated March 15 informing him it didn't meet the criteria used by the Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee for selecting who and what is featured on commemorative stamps.

"Unfortunately, this subject does not meet current criteria for commemoration on a postage stamp. The stamp program commemorates positive contributions to American life, history, culture and environment; therefore, negative occurrences and disasters will not be commemorated on U.S. postage stamps or stationery," wrote Shawn P. Quinn, manager for stamp development.

Speaking by phone March 26 Lehman told the Bay Area Reporter that he wholeheartedly disagreed with the letter's insinuation that Shepard had not had a positive impact on Americans. He noted that the Shepard family launched a foundation in response to his murder to address homophobia and promote LGBTQ rights, while an award-winning play based on his killing called "The Laramie Project" has been produced across the globe and helped educate audiences how to counteract bigotry.

"To read what it said was kind of shocking. Other people who have been assassinated or died in a horrific way have been commemorated on a stamp," noted Lehman, a Marine veteran who serves as vice chair of the nearly year-old San Diego County Arts and Cultural Commission. "One of the lines in the letter mentions the subject does not meet the criteria that the stamp program commemorates positive contributions to American life. Matthew's death has certainly done that in a very big way."

Shepard was brutally attacked on the night of October 6, 1998, tied to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming, and left to die. Found by rescuers and taken to a local hospital, he would succumb six days later on October 12 to the severe head injuries he had received.

The murder of the University of Wyoming student 26 years ago attracted intense media coverage and is one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history. It would galvanize activists across the country and led to the passage in 2009 of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

It's co-named in honor of a Black man who was tied to the back of a truck and dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas in 1998. The federal bill expanded a 1969 federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

"His death is still making important contributions to our country," said Lehman, who with his husband, Tom Felkner, was the first male same-sex couple to marry in California in 2008.

As the B.A.R. was first to report about the Shepard stamp effort online December 1, which would have been Shepard's 47th birthday, a main sponsor of it is the International Imperial Court System, the drag philanthropic organization started in San Francisco over half a century ago. It was behind the successful effort that saw a stamp honoring assassinated gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk be released by the federal agency in 2014.

Gay San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, chair of the court's national stamp campaign, expressed outrage to the B.A.R. about the postal service's reasoning behind its rejection of a stamp for Shepard.

"We never got that letter when we led the Harvey Milk stamp campaign," noted Murray Ramirez. "We are going to find out why this seems to be treated quite differently than any other stamp of someone assassinated or martyred."

Gay San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman authored a resolution earlier this year in support of the Shepard stamp after reading about the idea in the B.A.R. The Board of Supervisors became the first government body to support the proposal when it unanimously passed the resolution in late January.

Shown by the B.A.R. a copy of the rejection letter Lehman received, Mandelman called it "a very unfortunate response. Although Shepard's life ended tragically, his legacy is an enormously positive and important one. The Postal Service is way off base on this."

The San Diego City Council is scheduled to vote on its own resolution backing the Shepard stamp in April. Gay San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria is one of the campaign's honorary co-chairs, as are Dennis and Judy Shepard, who co-founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation in honor of their son.

The court system is also pressing to see stamps be issued on behalf of other deceased LGBTQ luminaries, such as Black civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. It has also called for ones featuring drag performers José Julio Sarria, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera, which Mandelman previously authored a resolution in support of that was passed by the board in 2020.

The ones for the trio of drag artists stemmed from the B.A.R. asking Murray Ramirez for comment about U.S. postal stamps featuring Bugs Bunny in various drag. They were believed to be the first American postage to depict drag.

He told the B.A.R. he is now worried similar reasoning will be used to reject the stamps for the real life drag performers as well as one for Rustin.

"Will they tell us that their colorful lifestyles are unacceptable but their Bugs Bunny stamps in drag are?" asked Murray Ramirez.

A spokesperson for the postal service did not immediately respond to the B.A.R.'s inquiry Tuesday evening on the veracity of the letter Lehman received and when it adopted the criteria rejecting "negative occurrences and disasters" being depicted on stamps.

Lehman told the B.A.R. he hopes the postal service stamp committee can be persuaded that its reasoning for rejecting the Shepard stamp is misguided.

"I think it is just an education issue, hopefully. The person who wrote this letter doesn't understand those positive contributions that Matthew's death has caused and the effect it had," said Lehman, 59, who was stationed aboard the USS Carl Vinson in the East Bay city of Alameda during his time as a service member and came out of the closet at age 21 while living in the Bay Area.

More information about the stamp selection process and how to submit letters in support of various stamp proposals can be found at the advisory committee's website.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!