Matthew Shepard was born on December 1st, 1976, to Judy and Dennis Shepard. Matthew’s family moved from Casper, Wyoming to Saudi Arabia when Matthew was a junior in high school, at which time Matthew attended The American School in Switzerland. He was a peer counselor with a passion for equality. He was kind and empathetic, and well liked by his classmates. Upon graduation, Matthew traveled back to Wyoming to attend the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where he studied political science, foreign relations and languages.
On October 7th, 1998, Matthew accepted a ride from Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Henderson and McKinney drove Matthew into the country, tied him to a fence post and beat him severely. McKinney and Henderson attacked Matthew because he was gay. They left him there in the cold dark, bleeding and unconscious until a cyclist found him, almost 18 hours later. Matthew died from his injuries on October 12th, 1998. In his last hours, Matthew was surrounded by the people who loved him most, and even as they mourned the extinguishing of Matthew’s light, they knew this moment was not in vain.
Eleven years after Matthew’s death, President Barack Obama signed into law The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Act, formerly the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. This bill makes it a federal crime to assault people based on their gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. The measure was a priority of the late Senator Edward Kennedy and civil rights groups all over America. Judy Shepard had visited President Obama in the Oval Office and he had made her a promise that this day would come. By signing The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Act into law, President Obama kept his promise to Matthew’s family.
In the thirteen years since the death of Matthew Shepard, things have changed. Some for the better, some for the worse. Earlier this year, the Tennessee senate passed a bill that makes it illegal to talk about homosexuality. The “Don’t Say Gay” law forbids public school teachers and students from discussing homosexuality from kindergarten through eighth grade. Tennessee governor Bill Haslam signed HB 600/SB 632 into law this summer. This bill gives businesses in Tennessee the right to discriminate against someone based on their sexual identity. However, on September 1st of this year, New Jersey drafted and adopted the strictest and most powerful anti-bullying legislation in the country, in response to the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutger’s freshman who took his own life after his roommate and a friend installed a hidden camera in his room and released footage of Tyler kissing a man. Clementi’s roommate was indicted on hate crime charges. Westboro Baptist Church continues their hate campaign against members of the LGBT community, and when WBC shows up to picket a funeral, there are Angels there as well; people who silently surround the mourners, effectively protecting them from the madness that is the Phelps family.
Have we learned anything? I believe we have. I believe we have learned how to speak up, how to recognize the hate, and how to combat it. Is it easy? No. When we have presidential candidates who believe homosexuality is a choice (Herman Cain) or have spouses who specialize in “reparative therapy” as if gay people are somehow broken and need to be repaired (Marcus Bachmann, Michele Bachmann’s husband), and when we have a Speaker of the House who uses tax payer money to fight the repeal of DOMA, we realize how far we have yet to go. When President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law, I wonder if he knew exactly what that meant, how that law would be used to belittle and demean and abuse members of the LGBT community. I wonder if he would do the same thing today.
I asked many people to share their memories of Matthew Shepard with me, including Captain Stephen Snyder-Hill and his husband, Joshua Snyder-Hill. (Captain Hill is the Army officer who was booed at the Republican debate.) I have been blessed to welcome these two amazing men into our lives, and consider it a privilege to call them friends. Ending the article with memories of the gift that was Matthew Shepard seems the best way to remember him-not as a victim but as a beacon, an inspiration and a symbol of love and hope for all.
Joshua Snyder-Hill: Matthew Shepard’s death had two extreme effects on me. When I heard of Matthews brutal death I was on the verge of coming out and his passing made me second guess that. A year later I was taken to DC for my first equality event. I was still not out to my family or friends. The one thing I remember most were the people picketing the concert hall cheering Matthew’s death and celebrating it as a victory. I remember all my fear of coming out melted away. I had spent three days in DC seeing nothing but hope and activism until that moment; it was then and there I decided, I had to be part of the fight for equality. Matthews death and the energy behind it, made me want to be proud of who I was and show love conquered hate.
Stephen Snyder-Hill: When I first learned about what happened to Matthew Shepard, I like everyone else was devastated. Then I was equally horrified when I saw the response from hateful groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. But out of this tragedy came a powerful movement against hate. U2 said it the best referring to the assassination of MLK, “Free at last they took your life, they COULD NOT TAKE YOUR PRIDE.” Matthew Shepard became a more powerful force than anyone could have imagined. And now in his death he is fighting hate and bullying everyday in his memory. Stephen Hill
James Hornik shared a piece of art he created in honor of Matthew, which you can see in the link here.
Win Stanley, activist and friend: I remember being struck by the realization that Matthew was roughly the same age as my own two children and wondering how his parents could bear such a horrific loss. After all this time it still has a profound effect on me.
Joshua, age 14 and my son: Why would someone do that? How can people hate other people just because they’re different?
Finally, from Matthew Shepard.org, the homepage for the foundation set up in Matthew’s honor by his family:
The Matthew Shepard Foundation was founded by Dennis and Judy Shepard in memory of their 21-year old son, Matthew, who was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Wyoming in October 1998.
Created to honor Matthew in a manner that was appropriate to his dreams, beliefs and aspirations, the Foundation seeks to “Replace Hate with Understanding, Compassion & Acceptance” through its varied educational, outreach and advocacy programs and by continuing to tell Matthew’s story.
To encourage respect for human dignity and difference by raising awareness, opening dialogues, and promoting positive change.
To “Replace Hate with Understanding, Compassion and Acceptance” through a variety of educational and outreach programs, and by continuing to tell Matthew’s story.
OUR DESIRED OUTCOME
To persuade people to think differently, behave differently, and inform others of the importance and value of diversity.
Matthew Shepard: December 1st, 1976-October 12th, 1998. We will never forget.