Yesterday Matthew Shepard, had he lived, would have been 39 years old. Instead, he forever will be remembered as a gentle looking young 21-year old who left for dead on a cold Wyoming plain, crucified for being gay.
I spoke recently to his friend Michele Jouse. Michele attended boarding school with Matthew when they were teens. Now, years later, after almost two decades of rage and grief, she gathered her emotions and was able to make a documentary film Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine. I interviewed her on my radio show, Out in Santa Cruz.
Many of us thought we knew Matthew. We didn’t. Not like those in his real life did.
Others today do not know him at all. As I talked about the interview to several straight people, the instant response I got was, shockingly to me, “Who is Matthew Shepard?”
My answer back: “Matthew Shepard was the young man who was crucified at the hands of homophobia. He died so I didn’t have to.”
Here is my letter to Matt. Happy birthday, young man, wherever you are.
It is your birthday. Yet, I am thinking of your death. I will never forget how that atrocity became seared into my psyche, and on the psyche of thousands.
For many, who had not given a single thought to LGBTQ rights at the time, you represented the “kid next door”, their neighbor, their own child. Your death rightly terrified them. The hatred and continued persecution, by the then less famous Westboro Baptist Church, further fed a new awareness as to the depths and horrors of homophobia.
We did not know the three dimensional Matt, however. At 21, you were already making your moves on activism, and filled with a desire to have a voice against prejudice. You were already battling demons in this world including HIV. These demons had gotten to you long before that fateful night in Laramie.
The worst was when you were visiting Morocco with friends, on leave from boarding school. You ventured out of the closet you had built and slipped into the night on your own, presumably to find the gay part of a strange town. I get that. When I was young, closeted, traveling with others, I did the same. As we put up the facade, we look for that time, later at night when we can find the space to breathe as ourselves. Your stepping out did not bring you relief . Instead, it had you fall prey to a group of six thugs who lay in wait for a gentle gay boy so they could rape him.
That is what they did to you. Foreshadowing a worse and more renown event to come, they not only abused your body, they threw you into a darkness that only the vilest of homophobia can create.
It was a darkness that you worked to escape in a return to home, to Wyoming, to the land of your innocence. As you were emerging from it, and finding your voice as an LGBTQ activist, homophobia found you again and this time, slaughtered you. I have been told that the activism spirit that we have witnessed in your mother Judy had not “fallen far from her tree.” The activist she became was the one you had intended to be yourself.
As you lay clinging to life, in a state that would have at best, left you barely functioning, your family was being asked if they wanted to remove life support. It was a choice they would never want to make. A family friend came in to talk to you, and in his talk, he told you that it was ok for you to let go of your life. He told you that all you personally set out to do, to become a voice and hero, had been done. You had lent fame to the issue and laid out homophobia in its stark bare evil for the world to see. He told you that you would be famous. That night, having heard him, your spirit departed, allowing the rest of your legacy to begin.
A child of December, strung up on a cross, left to die on a lonely plain, who certainly had a final cry to God, “Why oh, why, hast thou forsaken me?” It is all too reminiscent for me as a Christian. Where the man who experienced it first died as a lightning rod for our sins, you died as a lightning rod for the scourge of homophobia. You inspired a change in consciousness in the mass public that allowed them to see the humanity of LGBTQ people, many seeing it so for the first time. You were of the ripple, that caused a wave, that came crashing through to an equality that most had not dreamed of achieving in our lifetimes.
I stop and wonder what your life would be like now. I think that you would be similar to me. You would have love in your life, and potentially be a gay dad, with kids who adore you. You would have years of being yourself and attracting people who loved you for it. Your ability to live equal, free an safe, however, would have been on the back of a public awareness and a popularity that allowed for it. It begs the question.
Could you have had the love of building your own family in equality if you, yourself had not died to become part of the spirit that made it possible?
We won’t know. All I can tell you is that you gave me a gift I can never repay. As I kiss my two boys goodnight and tuck them in, I reflect that it might not be, had you not made the impact that you did. So, I kiss them, and love them, and think of you. I think of the kisses of your mom and your dad that can never come again. It is a debt I cannot repay to you or to them, but one that I commit to pay forward.
My sons will know your name. Those who know me will know what you represent.
Matt Shepard, you were not a personal friend of mine. I would not be so presumptuous to claim that in respect for those, like Michele Jouse, to whom you were that full three dimensional person.
I will always wish that you had been, however, and I will always carry gratitude for you as if you were. Your value will not be squandered and your ultimate sacrifice will not be in vain.