Twenty Years Later: Reflections on the Death of Matthew Shepard

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Imagine experiencing the death of a child.  And then imagine your child was a gay college student who died as a result of a brutal attack that left him beaten and suffering. And next imagine that tensions were so high at the time of his funeral that you, his parent, had to wear a bulletproof vest under your suit to the service.  And finally imagine it took twenty years to find a place where you could safely lay your son’s remains to rest without fear of them being desecrated by further anti-gay violence.   Such has been the journey of the parents of Matthew Shepard since his horrific murder in October of 1998.  This month, with much love and respect, Matthew was finally interred in a place of honor in the Washington National Cathedral.  

I discovered this event was happening when I was in Washington D.C. for work and inadvertently, but fortuitously, ended up at a candlelight vigil in Dupont Circle, held on the night before Matthew’s formal interment in the National Cathedral.  Two hundred plus people had gathered around the fountain in Dupont Circle to sing, reflect, and hear words of inspiration from community and religious leaders. The Rev. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal priest who in 2003 was the first openly gay person to be elected a bishop in a major Christian denomination, and who became a friend and supporter of the Shepards, spoke to the crowd about the need to reaffirm unity in the face of hatred.

As a tribute to Matthew and his family, it's useful to reflect not only on the tragedy, but also on things that happened as a result.  First, let me say that my friends and I in the gay community in northern Utah were rocked to our core by this senseless murder.  Not only were the details horrific, but the college town of Laramie, Wyoming was not all that different from my town of Ogden, Utah.  As a lesbian who had only been open about my sexuality for a few years, and who had received some nasty threats from homophobic locals, the reality of what homophobia could lead people to do was hard to shake.  As I stood in Dupont Circle 20 years later, holding a candle in the dark with a couple hundred strangers, it was easy to recall the feelings of fear and horror engendered by his murder.  And yet, with the sadness, it was also affirming to hear the words of the speakers, calling on people to continue to show love and to continue to work to protect marginalized communities from violence.  The evening’s experience made me think of the ways in which Matthew's death had given us opportunities to find and reaffirm that unity.  

First, in the Fall of 1998, my wife, Tami, and I joined many others to help start the Matthew Shepard Scholarship at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.  It was the first scholarship in Matthew’s name in the country.  Created to assist students who were committed to eliminating lgbt bias and reducing violence, the scholarship fund continues to be strong and to date has provided financial assistance for over 30 students at Weber State.   To my knowledge, this was the first scholarship that existed at Weber that was allowed to reward students who were committed to advancing lgbt rights.  I am sure such a scholarship would have eventually come along, but the circumstances of Matthew's death set in motion the energy needed to actually create and obtain University approval for such a fund.  (The scholarship did not come without its detractors; it was only after a strong push from a supportive university administration that the fund overcame community critics and was allowed to come into existence.) 

Second, in the early 2000s, Tami and I discovered a local production of The Laramie Project by a nascent theater company called Plan B.  The Laramie Project is the true story of the reaction of the residents of Laramie after Matthew’s murder.    We were blown away by the play, and in the process were introduced to the creative genius of Jerry Rapier, the Artistic Director of Plan B. Tami went on to become a long-time board member of Plan B Theater and we have been dedicated financial supporters of this local theater company's work for many years.  Plan B is an important local resource that produces the work of Utah playwrights, often gives voice to lgbt issues, and is famous for producing theater that creates conversation.  Had it not been for their production of The Laramie Project, we might never have discovered them.

Third, we had the opportunity to meet and listen to Matthew's mother, Judy Shepard, at a variety of events over the next two decades.  She would not know us, but we were awestruck by her resolve and ability to turn her grief into a call for action. She is a small, shy, quiet woman who I gather would have been happy to avoid any publicity for the entirety of her life. Instead, she was willing to step up and speak openly and honestly over the years, and in the process touched thousands of hearts and changed thousands of minds.  After Matt was murdered, President Clinton in 1999 urged Congress to expand federal hate crimes law to include sexual orientation.   It was initially received as giving "special protections" to gay people and was voted down in Congress year after year.  Judy continued to advocate for the need to protect people like her son, and finally, in 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and President Obama signed it into law.  

What lessons have we learned from Matthew Shepard’s saga?  Perhaps that when death slams one door shut, other doors open. We are reminded that good people will rally together after experiencing tragedy; that hearts can be changed and that laws can be improved. However, we apparently have a long way to go in learning to stop senseless violence.  As I write this, our country is reeling from a week that saw pipe bombs mailed to leading political figures and the murder by gun of many Jewish people while they were worshipping inside their Pittsburg synagogue. 

The answer? I don’t know.  But I do know this:  each one of us can start right now to take personal responsibility for being kind. No committee meetings, no protocol, no fund-raising, no approval needed – just start.  Be kind to yourself, be kind to your family, be kind to your neighbors, be kind to strangers.  Start now – it won’t hurt us to be kind while we figure out together the bigger answers.

I think your kindness would make Matthew Shepard smile.