1998 doesn’t seem that long ago, but in many ways the world was different. For one thing, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no YouTube — but one young man’s story caught the attention of the nation in a way that today would be called “going viral.”
The young man was Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student who was viciously beaten by two men he’d met in a bar and left hanging on a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo., then died a few days later at a hospital in Fort Collins, Colo. His death increased the awareness of antigay hate crimes and became a rallying point for supporters of LGBT-inclusive hate-crimes laws and other gay rights measures.
The new documentary film Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, produced and directed by Matthew’s onetime schoolmate Michele Josue, seeks to let audiences know there were so many things important about Matthew beyond the way he died — and also to make sure that his life and death are not forgotten.
Matthew, his father says, would be amazed to see the advances in LGBT rights that have taken place since his death. Among those are the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009, which commits federal resources to investigate and prosecute crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, gender, and other factors. Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, worked tirelessly to get the law passed, her husband notes.
Then there are advances in marriage equality, state-level antidiscrimination laws, the proliferation of gay-straight alliances in schools, and more. Also, Dennis Shepard says, “He would just be thrilled to see how open and relaxed the young people are. They just don’t understand what the issue is” with being gay.
But other factors — the persistence of homophobia among some segments of the population, the need to pass federal nondiscrimination protections, and the backlash against LGBT progress, with “license to discriminate” laws and calls to defy pro-equality court rulings — make it crucial to remember Matthew’s story, say his father and the filmmaker.
“It’s important for people to kind of reengage with the outrage we all had then,” says Josue. “Matt’s story is not unique … there are a lot of Matt Shepards out there who still need support and validation.”
That’s part of it, says his father, plus Matthew’s everyman quality — he was a young man of many interests, who loved hunting and fishing as well as theater and politics, who was intelligent and multilingual, who made friends easily. “Somebody everywhere could relate to a part of him,” Dennis Shepard says.
There are those who wonder, though, if his death commanded attention partly because he was a white, attractive, middle-class college student, not, say, a black transgender sex worker. To this, Josue responds, “Matt never asked to be the face of the gay rights movement, but for whatever reason, he is. And if it sheds some light on what’s happening to others, in the trans community as well, so be it.”
And before he became the face of a movement, he was a son, a brother, a friend, and that’s what Josue wants to show the world through her film. “He changed me in many ways,” says the filmmaker, who attended school in Switzerland with Matthew when his family was living in Saudi Arabia because of Dennis’s job (there was no high school for Matthew to attend there). “He taught me what it is to be a true friend. He was so extroverted and just truly loved people. He never met a stranger. I looked up to him and how he treated other people. In his death I couldn’t reconcile how something so horrible could happen to such a tenderhearted and kind person. It taught me to be a better ally and just stand up for all the Matt Shepards out there.”
The film recounts Matthew’s experiences at the school, his earlier years in Casper, Wyo., and some of the darker times of his life, as when, after being sexually assaulted while traveling in Morocco, he went into a period of depression and isolation, his gregariousness diminished.
Both of Shepard’s parents appear in the movie, as do many other people who knew him. Talking about Matthew was sometimes painful for them, Josue says, “but I think everyone, all his close friends, his teachers, his family were all very willing to share the Matt that we remembered and that we cherished.”
She adds, “I often compare it to reopening some very old wounds that never healed properly. So there’s a lot of tears, of course, but you know, there are also some really joyful moments when we were able to reminisce and remember little things about Matt that we had forgotten over time.”
Matthew’s brother, Logan, who is now 34, declined to participate in the film. “He’s very introverted like Judy and he’s more of an advocate behind the scenes,” Dennis Shepard says, adding that Logan is deeply involved with antibullying efforts and all the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, set up by the family to advocate for LGBT equality through a variety of programs.
The film, Dennis notes, is very honest. He says it’s one of four accounts of Matthew’s life and death that are totally honest, the others being Judy’s book, The Meaning of Matthew, and the plays The Laramie Project and its sequel, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. He and Josue dismiss as “totally bogus” the accounts that claim Matthew’s murder was not motivated by his killers’ homophobia but was instead the result of a drug deal gone bad. “We just ignore it because those who want to believe something that strange and odd will believe it,” he says.
Part of the movie’s honesty, he says, is making clear that Matthew “had failures and successes like everybody else.” He continues, “I think it’s important for young people to know that you’ll have good times and bad times.” The knowledge that some young people despair over the bad times to the point of suicide, he says, “just scares me to death.”
He and his wife, with their son and other allies, are working hard to keep other young LGBT people from despairing. One of the foundation’s projects is Matthew’s Place, an online community for LGBT youth, many of whom find little support in their families or schools.
Dennis and Judy’s work also includes visiting schools — this spring they’ll be talking to junior high students in San Francisco who are reading The Laramie Project — and, under the aegis of the U.S. State Department, traveling overseas to speak about Matthew and LGBT rights. They’ve been to 18 countries to date.
In a way, that effort is carrying out one of Matthew’s ambitions. “His goal was to go out and improve the world,” Dennis says. “He really loved this country and he thought those ideals should be taken everywhere.”
And continuing to tell his story, as through Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, is important to any effort to improve the world for LGBT people, his father says. That the film will be edited into an educational version for schools is just critical,” he says. Young people, he explains, “need to understand that they’re standing on the shoulders of what Matt did, what happened to Matt, who is standing on the shoulders of what happened to Harvey Milk, who was standing on the shoulders of Stonewall.”
“History repeats itself,” he adds, “unless you educate and teach. And I think that’s what this film does.”
Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is playing in theaters around the country. Click here to find a screening near you, and watch the trailer below.