|Matthew Shepard, 1976-1998|
I work weekend graveyard shifts at a gas station and convenience store in Missoula, Montana. The other night a custumor came in who, by appearance alone, let loose in me a flood of powerful emotions. He looks just like Matthew Shepard.
A brief summary: Matthew was a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who, on the night of October 6, 1998, was brutally beaten, tortured and left tied to an old fence post near Laramie, Wyoming. Six days later he died in a hospital from head injuries. He was murdered by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson who are now serving two consecutive life sentences in prison.
There are some witnesses who say McKinney pretended to be gay to lure Matthew away from a bar and rob him. Others say the crime was drug-related and based more on greed than homophobia. McKinney's girlfriend first said McKinney became enraged when Matthew made "sexual advances" towards him, but she later recanted her story. In a well-researched article for The Advocate, a national gay right magazine, Aaron Hidling wrote that investigators had "amassed enough anecdotal evidence to build a persuasive case that Shepard's sexuality was, if not incidental, certainly less central than popular consensus had lead us to believe." But Dave O'malley, the Larmie policeman who led the murder investigation, said: "I feel comfortable in my own heart that they did what they did to Matt because they had hatred towards him for being gay."
Fred Phelps, the hateful leader of the Westboro Babtist Church, certainly believed Matthew died because he was gay, and seemed to credit God for the murder; he organized a picket at Shepard's funeral of ignorant church members holding signs with statements such as, "God Hates Fags!" (Although Phelps is now dead, his Westboro group still maintains a despicable website depicting a photo of Matthew surrounded by flames stating "how many days Matthew Shepard has been in hell.") In one of the most thoughtful, well-executed anti-protests ever conceived, Matthew's friends dressed as angels at his funeral and surrounded the Westboro protesters, blocking them with giant outstretched wings. (The organizer, Romaine Patterson, has since formed an organization called Angel Action.)
Matthew's murder rallied activists all over the world to raise awareness of abuse and mistreatment of gay people and push for hate crime legislation. Matthew's parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, became (and remain) prominent gay-rights activists and led a successful battle for passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (commonly called the Matthew Shepard Act) which was signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009.
There was a time I did not understand or support "hate crime" legislation. After all, a crime is a crime; assault and murder are already illegal. I've since changed my mind. When a certain segment of people are targeted for and become victims because of who and what they are, such as being gay, it keeps others fearful of being and expressing who and what they are; at times it can keep people afraid of even going out in public. It suppresses freedom and liberty. It is a form of terrorism. The aftermath of Matthew's Shepard's murder helped me understand that better.
Judy Shepard also formed the Matthew Shepard Foundation. There have been numerous books, plays, songs and films made about Matthew's murder and the aftermath. (I recently read a powerfully moving book called, "The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie and a World Transformed," published in 2009, and written by Judy Shepard -- a remarkably strong and courageous person.)
Sadly and unfortunately, it sometimes takes tragedy to create awareness and action.
I first learned of Matthew Shepard the day he died when I returned from an elk hunt in the wilds of Montana. I was still closeted and married — fighting, denying and suppressing my attraction to men, often leading a secret, shameful double life. The news hit me hard, on several fronts; at one point in my life, I had been the stereotypical homophobe who hated in others what I hated in myself. I broke down sobbing. My wife (now my former wife who remains my best friend) was a bit surprised it hit me has hard is it did. Now she understands.
These floodgates of emotion opened up again when Matthew's look-alike came into the store the other night to buy beer. He looked at me kind of funny.
"Wow, you look like Matthew Shepard," I told him.
"I get that all the time," he said.
"I hope you take it as a compliment; Matthew Shepard was a beautiful man," I replied.
"Thank you," he said. "It used to bother me, but then I learned about Matthew and now I am pretty proud to look like him."
Such is the meaning of Matthew.