Often when we think of Matthew Shepard, we think of the handsome thin blond, with a sweet smile on his lips. And for most of the year, that is great. He was a student at the University of Wyoming, majoring in Political Science. Matthew should be remembered for the the nice and kind young man his friends and family has described, a normal young man who left his family way too soon. You see, Matthew died fourteen years ago, almost two months shy of his 22nd birthday. His death was a vicious one, with Matthew being beaten and, to some extent tortured, and then left to die in a field in Laramie, Wyoming, tied to a fence.
The image above is not pretty, but is one we should never forget. Shortly after midnight on October 6, 1998, Matthew met two boys in a club, and they chatted. Soon they offered to drive Matthew to his home. They never made it there. They drove him to a remote area, and proceeded to hit, pistol-whip, and torture Matthew. They tied him to a wooden fence, still alive. They left him, taking his address. When he was discovered 18 hours later, he was in a coma. No one knows for sure when he did, but it is hoped that it happened before he was left to die. He was taken to a hospital, and remained in a coma. Matthew Shepard was pronounced dead at 12:53 a.m. on October 12, 1998.
When Matthew was being beaten, the attackers were also battering him with verbal abuse, calling him all kinds of names, including 'faggot'. When news about the brutal murder came out, students at the University of Laramie, as well as from other schools and communities in the area, came out to form a quiet and respectful candlelight vigil for Matthew. Soon, vigils were popping up across the country, from coast to coast.
When it came time for his funeral, an ugly group of religious zealots decided to hire a bus to they could disrupt the grieving of his family and friends, in order to promote their misguided hatred and ignorance. They claimed to be spiritual people, although their ugly words and mean ways showed very little of the ways and words of the man they claimed to love, Jesus, the Son of God. Rather than taking the moral high ground to comfort a family and community in need, took the low road, and tried to use their pain to promote a political agenda.
As is often the case, the dimwitted zealots could not keep their plans quiet, and when people heard about the planned protest, they came up with a plan of their own. A group of boys and girls came out to the funeral wearing white, a sporting large white wings. They planned to stand between the mourners and the zealots, spreading the wings to protect those attending the funeral.
Two young men, who will remain unnamed by me for they have had way too much exposure than any ugly bigot deserves, were found in possession of Matthew's wallet and shoes. They were arrested. One plead guilty and testified against the other the escape the death penalty. The other was found guilty of felony murder. While the court was considering imposing the death sentence, Matthew's parents spoke out, asking for life sentences, not death. They felt enough death had been brought by hatred, and it was time to end the cycle.
Each year, Matthew's death is remembered by many as a symbol of how hate, greed, and ignorance breeds violence and bigotry. Matthew Shepard lost his life because others thought it was okay to beat the gay boy and leave him to die. Still others thought is was okay to disrupt the funeral of people who just experienced a big loss, all to promote their own lives of hatred and ignorance. But we mustn't focus on those poor, unhappy people. Instead, remember those who stood against the funeral crashers, those who came out for the vigils across the nation for a young man they didn't know, and those who didn't let the misguide young men get away with murder. Remember those who worked long and hard to create national 'hate crime' legislation in the name of Matthew Shepard, protecting LGBT people from the mindless crimes. And if we continue to remember, just maybe we can keep another young gay man or woman from falling victim to hate. Listen as Garrin Benfield sings "What You're Hiding", which he performed at Sullivan Hall in New York City in 2011.
Rest In Peace, Matthew Shepard. In remembering Matthew's life and death, this post will be up all day.