Matthew Shepard: 20 years later

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by Trey Strange

As the 20th anniversary of their son’s murder approaches, Judy and Dennis Shepard have one thing to say about the progress of anti-violence activism.

“We’re not done yet,” Judy said.

On Oct. 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay university student, was found beaten and strung to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyo. Americans reeled at the image of a 21-year-old man crucified by a pair of men turned criminal by their anti-gay hatred.

The 2018 National Convention of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists hosted the Shepard family in a panel titled “Matthew Shepard: Twenty Years Later” that addressed the role of their son’s story in helping to foster political and social change in the past two decades — and highlighted the progress left to be made on anti-LGBTQ violence.

“If you’re not a straight white Christian man right now, I’m worried about you,” Judy said.

Judy and Dennis spoke to a packed room of journalists and conference attendees alongside Beverly Tillery, the executive director of the New York Anti-Violence Project, on a panel moderated by LGBTQ media activist Cathy Renna.

The Shepards discussed the difficulty of changing anti-gay attitudes and the stilted progress of states and cities to pass anti-hate crime legislation and protections for LGBTQ workers, including in their home state of Wyoming, one of five states that does not criminalize bias-motivated violence.

The panelists also criticized the rhetoric of President Donald Trump.

“We thought after 20 years, we wouldn’t have to do this work,” Judy said on the panel. “I really thought, before the 2016 elections, we were well on our way to that goal. We’re not.”

While FBI data indicate that anti-LGBTQ hate crimes decreased by about 7 percent between 1998 and 2016, activists note that hate crimes are still underreported by both victims and police, making data unreliable.

In 2017, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs released a special midyear report called “The Crisis of Hate” to address 52 anti-LGBTQ homicides, the highest number recorded in the organization’s 20-year history.

Of the murder victims, 22 were trans women of color. Many killers targeted victims through dating apps, and 53 percent used a gun.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act to mandate increased reporting of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and encourage state and federal investigation of violence.

Matthew is often remembered in the crucifix pose with his arms outstretched. While early reports said that he was found this way, later accounts contradicted that. People have been unwilling to give this image up, the Shepards said.

“There was just something about a boy strung up to that fence,” said Ron Willison, a longtime Palm Springs resident who met Judy Shepard a few years after Matthew’s death. “I think we all just imagined ourselves strapped to that fence.”

Judy’s presence and the memory of Matthew were important for Willison, who grew up in an Ohio town where being gay meant a life of bullying and an inability to go to police for help.

When Judy visited Palm Springs to speak at a queer film festival, Willison was working at a hotel and persuaded its owners to donate a suite for her stay and to pay for her airfare.

Like many members of LGBTQ communities across the United States, Willison experienced Matthew’s death not as a horror story from afar but as the real possibility for the end of his story, too.

It didn’t surprise the Shepards that people felt connected to their son.

“Matt had the perfect image. He was small of stature, good looking, well-traveled,” Dennis said in an interview. “People could pull something out about him that they could feel and understand and wanted to try to keep for themselves.”

In 2010, Judy published a memoir called The Meaning of Matthew with the aim of reclaiming him from the messianic image that some people had developed. She wanted him to be remembered as more human, she said.

Matthew’s childhood friend, Michele Josue, made a film called Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, which also hoped to reveal some of Matthew’s life instead of focusing on his death.

But they were not the only ones interested in revising the story. In 2013, gay journalist Stephen Jimenez wrote The Book of Matt, recounting the tragedy but alleging that, instead of a hate crime, it was a drug deal gone wrong.

Although Jimenez said it was not an attempt to excuse the murder, right-wing media claimed the book as evidence of the left’s gay-rights agenda.

The belief that Matthew Shepard’s death was not a hate crime nestles tightly into the alt-right ideology of the supporters of Trump, whom the Shepards said was “pulling back the equal opportunity to succeed.”

“He is the anti-social issue president,” Dennis said.

Not every narrative of Matthew’s life has been as controversial. The Laramie Project, a play written by Moises Kaufman in 2000 about the events surrounding Matthew’s death and the people who mourned him, has received international acclaim. In the past two years, it has been performed more than 300 times in the United States and abroad.

“They did it at Matt’s old high school in Casper several years ago. Three kids came out during the production,” Judy said, beaming.

For Judy and Dennis, that is the hope of telling Matthew’s story: that it can be used to create atmospheres of acceptance and equality. And they hope it is stories like his that will ultimately convince people to care for all members of the LGBTQ community, not just the men who are killed.

“I would actually like to move away from the idea that we need an icon,” Judy said. “Let’s just celebrate the movement for what it is — and the people who do the everyday work.”

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