|Matt Shepard * Courtesy of the Shepard Family|
By Brody Levesque | A little after midnight on a cool crisp Wyoming night 15 years ago tonight, a young gay college student accompanied by two young men whom he had met earlier in a bar, walked out never to return. His brutal death at the hands of those two men would haunt a nation and set off a long campaign to protect the rights of America's sexual minorities.
That young man, Matthew Shepard, would come to represent a rallying point, a potent symbol for the LGBT community which struggled to head off intolerance and hatred based on assumptions and misconceptions in a way that the United States had never seen before. Matthew had been killed because he was gay and LGBT people, their friends, and their families, viscerally reacted to his murder launching a national call to halt to these types of hate based crimes and to severely punish those who perpetuated them.
In an ironic twist of fate, that campaign was led by Matthew's mother Judy and his father Dennis, who vowed to work towards the goal of preventing what happened to their eldest son from happening to someone else's son or daughter.
In those years since that time, Judy and Dennis, supported by their youngest son Logan, have taken a parent's worst scenario and instead of locking themselves away from society, have honoured the person that was their son Matt, by tirelessly crisscrossing the nation in their efforts to combat intolerance and bigotry. Lobbying for protections for LGBT people including a federal law that bears his name designed to deter those from committing similar unspeakable acts of violence.
Backed by a small group of dedicated staff at the foundation they created on what would have been Matt's twenty-second birthday, Judy and Dennis continue to spread the message of hope, love, and understanding. On college campuses, at high schools, and speaking before professional groups the Shephards have raised awareness of the struggles that confront the LGBTQ community.
Their message is simple but powerful, “erase hate.”
I experienced a completely surreal moment the other night, while attending the eastern premiere of Michele Josue's film “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine,” at Washington's National Cathedral- I watched my young LGBT activist friend Chris Dyer hug Judy Shepard.
|Chris Dyer and Judy Shepard|
That hug and the smiles on both of their faces brought that story full circle for me as 15 years ago as I had been a part of the press corps, which had descended on Wyoming to cover the Matthew Shepard story which had had Americans riveted because of the sheer brutality and horrific nature of the crime, which staggered the imagination.
As a journalist, it has been distasteful to continue to write stories about LGBTQ youth who have given up hope and taken another path which ends in death. The country is thereby deprived of not only the brightness of that youth's humanity but it is denied the potential for that next greatest invention, scientific discovery, politician, or community leader.
I find that very disturbing and anathema to what I believe is every human being's right to enjoy what life has to offer. And in most cases they kill themselves because of how people-family, friends, or maybe society view their sexual orientation or gender identity.
I also continue to be angered by the number of incidents of assaults against LGBTQ people whose stories I cover.
But, watching Michele's film with Chris, an openly gay 20 year old sitting next to me along with Nikkita Jackson, my dear friend who is a young independent lesbian of colour, made me realise that Matthew Shepard's legacy lives on through his parents, brother, and through his friends, like Michele, who brought to me and anyone else fortunate to watch her film, her friend Matt.
It also dawned on me that perhaps Matthew's greatest legacy is Chris, Nikki, and all of their peers and all of you folks out there who believe it is possible to live alongside one another in tolerance, understanding, and compassion. We may have a long way to go, but I believe we will get there.
|Chris Dyer, Judy Shepard, and Nikkita Jackson|
Matthew used to keep journals, notebooks, diaries, writing down his thoughts as he struggled to live from day to day and as he saw his world. He would write down that “I am generous, I am loving, I am playful-” in a way it was his mantra, his salve to heal his soul as he explored his world and reached out to others.
Michele told me recently Matt would befriend anyone, he loved people. His murderer’s rage may have taken his life fifteen years ago, true, but they failed to take his spirit which lives on in you, and you, and you. Let us celebrate his legacy and not dwell on his death instead invoking what he felt, believed, and was an immutable trait of his character and person. Let's erase hate shall we?
I am inquisitive, I am loving, I am thoughtful, I am Gay and Matt Shepard is a friend of mine.