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Matthew Shepard’s America Twenty Years Later

By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.

It doesn’t seem possible that today marks two decades since Matthew Shepard died.  He will forever be the 21-year-old kid with the impish grin in all those images indelibly etched in our minds. 

It’s impossible to imagine him as the 41-year-old man, husband, and father he would be today.

For nearly a week in 1998, the story about the gay college student abducted by two men, bound to a fence, beaten beyond recognition with a .357 handgun, then left to die in the freeze Wyoming night gripped the nation.  According to police reports, when he was discovered, the only part of Matthew Shepard’s face not covered with blood was where his tears had washed it away. 

For the LGBT Community, the brutality of the robbery turned murder struck us to the core and our grief over Matthew’s death was nearly unbearable.  He was more than one of us, we were him.  As the target of hate fueled violence, we saw ourselves.  It could have just as easily been us in Anytown, U.S.A.

But the hate which manifested itself in murder to take Matthew Shepard’s life did not stop when his heart did twenty years ago.  It morphed itself into vile, putrid protests of condemnation aimed at his family and friends who mourned at his funeral. 

“…there doesn’t need to be this kind of violence and hatred in our world.  Loving one another doesn’t mean that we have to compromise our beliefs; it simply means that we choose to be compassionate and respectful of others.”  — Judy Shepard

Still, the addiction of hate towards our Community, in both words and deeds, continues in America two decades later.

While his murderers were brought to justice and imprisoned for life, little has lessened the occurrence of hate crimes against our Community.  The Matthew Shepard/James Byrd, Jr. Federal Hate Crime Prevention Act, which Republicans successfully blocked for eleven years but President Obama signed into law in 2009, has not reduced the violence. What it has changed is the way federal hate crime data is collected, reported and/or investigated.

Our Community took a momentous step towards equality in 2015 and away from being second class citizens in America, when the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states.  But the backlash from conservatives and Evangelicals has fanned the fire of hate against us in ways we could not have imagined.  We need only look at the White House and its conservative and religious sycophants to see the raging conflagration before us.

It was just announced Matthew Shepard’s ashes will be interred during a ceremony at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on October 26th.  He will share this honor with other notable Americans including President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, as well as numerous elected officials and Bishops of the Episcopal Church.  In an interview with the New York Times,

“I think it’s the perfect, appropriate place,” Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, said in an interview on Thursday. “We are, as a family, happy and relieved that we now have a final home for Matthew, a place that he himself would love.”

Still, it is tragic that fear of desecration has prevented the Shepards from finding a final resting place for their son until now.  Even in death, Matthew Shepard has had to be protected from another hate crime in America for twenty years, nearly as long as he lived.



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