There are few events in recent history that have touched me so deeply or left me forever changed as did the story of Matthew Shepard. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, I was a senior in college, a month away from my 21st birthday, when Matthew Shepard’s name was first on the news. Matthew was 21 years old, two months away from his 22nd birthday when he was beaten and left for dead. He died days later in the hospital surrounded by his family. Matthew Shepard was killed for being gay.
My life has been a strange juxtaposition of events. I’ve travelled the world, and spent the better part of my formative years overseas in both Europe and Asia. Despite this, I grew up somewhat sheltered. While I graduated from a large, extremely diverse high school, I never really came face to face with the atrocities people can put one another through. I went to a small college where the people were mostly congenial. The thought of anyone of my peers being tortured and left in the cold barely clinging to life simply for who they were seemed impossible. Yet, here it was—staring me down on the news. History classes taught us about the lynchings and cross burnings of the 1950s and the civil rights movement of the 60s and led us to believe these things were all in the past, that America was somehow more united now. Matthew Shepard’s story taught us this was not true.
Reading and watching the news each day broke my heart. The announcement on October 7, 1998 that Matthew Shepard had died as a result of his injuries brought me to tears. A few days later, I learned about Westoboro Baptist Church, they were the ones standing outside his funeral with hateful signs. The inhumanity of it all disgusted me. What is it that causes a human being to want to harm another simply for who he is?
In 2009, Matthew’s mother Judy published a book about her son’s life and death and the lessons she hopes we take from it. She and her husband Dennis started the Matthew Shepard Foundation which seeks to “replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance through its varied education, outreach and advocacy programs and by continuing to tell Matthew’s story.” The book, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie and a World Transformed, is one of the most heartbreaking, infuriating, motivating tales I’ve ever read. To read it and not cry would be, in my opinion, impossible. Judy’s love for her son is evident in her telling of his tale. However, Judy’s strength and determination to make something good come from this tragedy is awe inspiring.
The book begins with a phone call, the call no parent ever wants to receive, and chronicles Judy and Dennis’ experiences from the hospital to the sentencing of Matthew’s attackers. The narrative introduces readers to Matt, as his parents knew him, and let us see Matthew as a person, not just a symbol. This is a mother’s love letter to her son and a plea for the world to learn from this tragedy.
Matthew’s death marked a turning point in American history; we need to keep discussing his story, for it is forgetfulness that causes history to repeat itself. Judy Shephard is an inspiration, and her book will leave readers forever changed.
An NPR interview with Judy Shepard can be found here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112638393
Excerpts from Dennis Shepard’s statement at the sentencing of Aaron McKinney: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/11/05/us/excerpts-from-statement-by-father.html?ref=aaronjamesmckinney