17 Hours In Des Moines…

Friday, 6/7/2013 — I drove to Des Moines, Iowa to photograph the Matthew Shepard Scholarship Awards Dinner.  The namesake of the scholarships was brutally attacked and murdered in Laramie WY in 1998. His story so affected me then and still does today. I had been gay bashed in 1994 and again in early part 1998, which resulted in some time in the hospital. So when the story of Matthew’s beating and death broke in October of 1998, it just ripped open all the emotion I still had lingering from my assaults. At the time, I was trying to get a handle on my meth addiction and was just a bundle raw nerves as I continued to relapse.

I became involved with the Scholarship Awards Dinner two years ago when the founders of the NOH8 Campaign were the keynote speakers. I volunteered to photograph the event since I was in the house and gave the Eychaner Foundation the images from the night.

The day after that event, the NOH8 Campaign set up their studio and held their “Open Shoot-Des Moines” and I volunteered there as well. I met a lot of people that day and between both events that weekend, I realized Iowans are very gracious, kind, caring and friendly people. I established a few friendships in those two days that are still intact.

Last year I was invited to the event by the foundation, but was photographing President Obama’s arrival in Minneapolis and was unable to attend.  Some of the above-mentioned friends reminded me of that this year and ribbed me for choosing the Presidential event over their Iowa gig!

Again this year, I was invited to the event by the foundation and they sweetened the invitation by offering to cover my photographic rate and travel expenses. Because I believe strongly in what the foundation does through this event, I waived most of my travel expenses and offered a discounted photo rate.

What the Iowa Matthew Shepard Scholarship Awards Dinner is, is an event in which the Eychaner Foundation awards college scholarships’s to openly LGBTQ high school students who posses scholastic, moral, ethical leadership and conduct and demonstrate LGBTQ activism and community service.

This year’s keynote speaker was Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, and Matthew’s mom, Judy was introducing him.

So I trekked down to Des Moines from Minneapolis, making the first road trip in my new six-month-old Honda Element.  Rather uneventful trip, as side from the passing miles, which was fine by me. I idled away the time listening to music, some I hadn’t listened to in 25 years. U2’s The Joshua Tree; Eric Clapton’s August.

I checked into the Downtown Marriott, and then headed over the Iowa Convention Center where the event was being held. I ambled around taking some shots of the room and of the convention staff as they set the tables.

As guest began to arrive, I hung around the top of the stairs and photographed people checking in, milling about and enjoying cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

I spotted Judy and Dennis Shepard, introduced myself and asked to take their picture. They agreed.  

I milled around the room as more folks began to arrive and the once vast empty room seemed crowded as some 400+ people enjoyed the pre-function activities.

Dennis Shepard was giving an interview to a TV station and Judy was standing off to the side. I approached her again and reintroduced my self. I told her that I had listen to speak up in Minneapolis a few years back. I then told her that Matt’s story had always affected me and that I really didn’t know what exactly to say to her…as I tried to find words, my vision blurred form the tears that were welling and my voiced cracked as I asked her if I could just have a hug. She agreed, we embraced and that seemed to bring the emotion up out of me (as actually it is again now) at an even greater volume. I again tried to speak and all I could manage to say was “ I don’t really know what to say to you…” and my voice was trembling. She replied as she wiped tears from her eyes: “Oh honey, don’t MAKE me cry! I have an interview to give.” I hugged her again, bid her good bye and then moved away to shake it all off, wipe my eyes and say a quiet “oh fuck!” as I tried to compose myself.

What do you say to a woman whose son was brutally murdered in hate for who he was?  I guess I could have said “I’m sorry for your loss”…but that’s just wasn’t were I was at.

 I captured some images of Dennis giving his interview and then Judy giving hers; then continued capturing scenes around the room

Time was approaching for the event to begin and the doors to the main room opened and folks started to migrate in and take their seats at the appropriate table.

I went to my seat, introduced myself to my tablemates and noshed on salad for awhile. Then it was back to roaming the event capturing images as the night began to unfold.

The way this night just flows is just such fun. Various past scholars took the stage to share the experince with the newly named scholars. 

Rich Eychaner was at the podium to introduce Alicia Claypool, who was honored with a Life Time Achievement Award. Alicia took the stage and spoke for a time.

Then it was Rich again who introduced Judy Shepard, who in turn introduced her husband Dennis.

Dennis speech was rather intense. He shared about Matt. He spoke of significant points in gay history and how the LGBTQ community today stands on the shoulders of these events in history. And he praised the families of the students who were in the room …and of the people in the room supporting these scholars.  And then he spoke to the scholars, and to all the LGBTQ people in the room and how they should feel pride in who they are.

All of this was too much for me, and I broke, again. I had to use my napkin to honk my nose.  I was hit with sense sadness as my family of origin issues came bubbling up.

So in the midst of all the goodness that was this night, just like that, I am hit with what the world of psychology calls a “ corrective emotional breakthrough” and I felt as if I was suddenly dropped into a blender.

I maintained as I moved through the motions of what was the end of the event. Interacting with people as I did what were the final photo ops of the night: the group shots. Once this phase was complete, I bid adieu to my contact at the event, and walked back to the hotel just kind of numb from everything.

Back alone in the room I was hit with one off the strongest urges to drink that I have had in a long time.  I paced about for a while with this anxiety, this uneasiness. I have said in the past; strip it all away, the sponsors, the meetings, the fellowship, the 12 steps and you all have is you; and your ability to chose. Either pick up and use or not. I choose to go to bed.

This is the thing of addiction/recovery that amazes me. Even with nine years clean…I am still over come with the negative emotion that kept me high for years. Except now when the shitty committee takes over and tries to run, rule and ruin, I don’t have to act on the uproar and give in to intoxicants.

The next day driving back to Minneapolis, Dennis Shepard’s words weighed on me mind. Not in a negative way…but was reaffirming that I have got to let go of the negative aspects of my life.  In a way, such an easy thing to say, yet in practice, another thing altogether.  Yet a change is occurring.

I am honored to have been a part of this event.



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