Editorial: Shame on US Postal Service

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday April 3, 2024
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The U.S. Postal Service rejected a stamp honoring the late Matthew Shepard. Photo: Shepard stamp campaign committee
The U.S. Postal Service rejected a stamp honoring the late Matthew Shepard. Photo: Shepard stamp campaign committee

We're not surprised by much these days, but the United States Postal Service managed to stun us with its letter stating that a stamp honoring gay college student Matthew Shepard was rejected as too "negative" — presumably because Shepard was beaten to death due to his sexual orientation. The Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee should rescind the rejection of a forever stamp honoring Shepard.

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 freshman 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 law expanded a 1969 federal hate crime statute to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

In the years since Shepard's death, his parents, Dennis and Judy, started the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which works to address homophobia and promote LGBTQ rights. Both have remained outspoken allies to the LGBTQ community. An award-winning play based on his killing called "The Laramie Project" has been produced across the globe and helps educate audiences on how to counteract bigotry.

Those positive outcomes of a brutal tragedy — the federal law, the foundation, and the play — are apparently not enough for the postal service and its committee, though they should be.

"Unfortunately, this subject does not meet current criteria for commemoration on a postage stamp," wrote Shawn P. Quinn, manager of stamp development for USPS, in a March 15 letter to gay San Diego resident Bob Lehman, who had written a letter to the postal service in support of the Shepard stamp. Lehman shared the letter with the Bay Area Reporter and told us he was rather shocked to receive Quinn's response. A Marine veteran who attended the welcoming ceremony for the USNS Harvey Milk in San Francisco last week, Lehman vehemently disagrees with the postal service and thinks Shepard's death has had positive impacts over the last 26 years.

The postal service differs. "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," Quinn wrote.

Of course Shepard's death was "negative" — death itself is generally not considered a positive development. But many postage stamps have been issued that commemorate people who have not had peaceful or "positive" deaths. Gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated in November 1978, along with then-mayor George Moscone. A forever stamp honoring Milk was issued in 2014. Civil rights leader the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. A stamp honoring him was issued in 1979. Malcolm X, a Black leader also involved in the civil rights movement, was assassinated in 1965. A stamp recognizing him was issued in 1999.

More recently, the postal service issued a forever stamp recognizing manatees. A March 27 news release stated the aquatic mammals, familiar in Florida, often fall victim to accidental strikes by motorboats or become entangled in fishing nets. That's not positive. The underground railroad, by which enslaved people escaped through a network of secret routes, was honored with a forever stamp last month. Certainly, slavery is not something that was positive; though some conservatives have lately espoused otherwise.

Now comes word that there's a move to have a forever postage stamp issued in honor of the late ambassador James C. Hormel, a San Francisco man who was also heir to the Hormel Foods Corporation and a noted philanthropist. Hormel became the first openly gay U.S. ambassador when he was named during a recess appointment in 1999 by then-President Bill Clinton. Hormel had been dragged through hostile Senate hearings during the process because of his sexual orientation. In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Blade, James Patterson, a former freelancer for the B.A.R., wrote that Quinn responded favorably to the Hormel stamp request.

So, not to take anything away from a possible Hormel stamp, but the apparent lesson here is someone can be a deceased wealthy gay man and have a postage stamp named after them, but a gay college student who was murdered cannot. It's time for the postal service and its stamp advisory committee to be more open-minded and realize that positive things can and do happen even under the most tragic of circumstances.

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