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Topics In the News
 
Remembering Matthew Shepard
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 10/09/13
Last updated on: 10/09/13
 
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Matthew Shepard (YouTube video still.)

Fifteen years after the murder of Matthew Shepard, we remember a gentle young man who became a vivid symbol of the hatred and violence visited upon gay people.

On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was lured from a gay-friendly hangout in Laramie, Wyoming by two young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who pretended to be gay.

McKinney and Henderson drove Shepard to a remote area, beat him with the butt of a .357 magnum pistol, stole his wallet (including his credit card, which provided a first clue to the police) and his shoes (so that he could not walk back), and tied him to a fence.

About eighteen hours later, a mountain biker found the brutalized young man. At first glance, he thought what he saw was a scarecrow. Shepard was only barely alive in the 30 degree weather. The only visible part of his bloody face were the tracks made by his tears.

He was rushed to a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, and put on full life support, but in the early hours of October 12, without regaining consciousness, he expired, with his parents, who had been summoned from their home in Denver, by his side.

The scarecrow image, a vivid reminder of homosexuals as outcasts, coupled with the Biblical symbol of a crucifixion, caused an outcry across the world. Shepard made the cover of Time magazine and the front page of the New York Times; thousands of candlelight vigils were held across the nation.

The glbtq community grieved deeply, and our grief was exacerbated by the gloating of homophobes such as the Phelps clan of the Westboro Baptist Church, who picketed Shepard's funeral with signs alleging "Got hates fags."

Fifteen years after his horrendous murder, Shepard remains a vivid reminder of the hatred and violence visited upon gay people.

Shepard has become a fixture of popular culture, evoked by celebrities and performers in order to signal their position on hate crimes and gay bashings.

Inspired by Shepard's death, Melissa Etheridge wrote "Scarecrow" on her album Breakdown and dedicated it to Shepard's memory; Elton John presented a concert in Laramie and played "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" especially for the slain young man; Peter, Paul, and Mary also performed in Wyoming at a concert in Shepard's memory.

In 2000, Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project performed the play The Laramie Project in Laramie and then across the country; made into an HBO motion picture in 2002, it has since become a staple of university and community theater.

In 2002, NBC broadcast a made-for-television movie, The Matthew Shepard Story, starring Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston.

In 2008, members of the Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to conduct follow-up interviews with residents featured in The Laramie Project. Those interviews were turned into a companion piece, entitled The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which debuted on October 12, 2009.

In 2012, Lesléa Newman published October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. A slim but powerful volume of poems, "a historical novel in verse," October Mourning explores with heartbreaking insight the meaning of a gentle young man's unspeakable death at the hands of gaybashers.

Shepard also became a poster boy for hate crimes legislation. As a result, he was defamed by right-wing politicians and conservative religious figures. In the House of Representatives, Republican Representative Virginia Fox, in a speech characterized by Keith Olbermann as "the most despicable thing said on the floor of the House in decades," declared that Shepard was not killed because he was gay and that the story of his death is "really a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these [hate crime] bills."

Despite the efforts to discredit Shepard, hate crimes legislation finally passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009, eight years after first being introduced. The bill is named the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The hate crimes bill was the first federal legislation that specifically recognized the civil rights of glbtq people. Fittingly, the parents of Matthew Shepard, Judy and Dennis Shepard, were present at the signing ceremony.

Upon the passage of the bill, Judy Shepard issued the following statement: "When Dennis and I started calling 10 years ago for federal action to prevent and properly prosecute hate crimes against gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans, we never imagined it would take this long. The legislation went through so many versions and so many votes that we had to constantly keep our hopes in check to keep from getting discouraged. . . . We are incredibly grateful to Congress and the president for taking this step forward on behalf of hate crime victims and their families, especially given the continuing attacks on people simply for living their lives openly and honestly."

Central to the success of the legislation was indeed the unstinting efforts of Shepard's parents and the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which they established "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."

This video from the Matthew Shepard Foundation tells Matthew's story:

In the Matthew Shepard Tribute below, Melissa Etheridge performs "Scarecrow."

 
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