For me, it feels like yesterday, although I said the same thing at the 5 year mark in a piece published in the LGBT media. Matt has been gone for ten years.
This photo was taken at a press conference the morning Matt was killed. I had a friend ask if I was wearing a bullet proof vest (actually is was a wool blend, just chilly and windy in Wyoming all year round). But she made a good point.
At a panel discussion last week in New York, I once again told the story of going from a Family Research Council press conference on Oct. 9, 1998 to my office in Washington, DC and being bombarded with calls and emails about this young man found clinging to life in Wyoming after a brutal beating that was being described as a possible hate crime. Hours later, I was on a plane to Laramie, and things have never been the same since.
While this kind of marker - can it really be a decade? - should give us an opportunity to reflect on what has changed (and as importantly, what hasn't) I will also be reminded of Matt and his family very much this month for a variety of reasons. Of course, it has been the recent murders of Lawrence King and Simmie Williams Jr. that brought up all of the feelings of frustration and made me think of what their lives were like, how their families and friends must now feel, what will happen in the aftermath. The reality is that the community is better at drawing attention to these hate crimes, although never as much as the media really should, nor with the depth they deserve (although the L.A. Times is really trying to dig into Lawrence's story. The analysis of why Matt's murder got so much attention is a complex one I will explore in a future post.
This week, I will be spending some time with Matt's mother, Judy Shepard, who will be in New York for a variety of reasons, primarily to receive and award from GLAAD for her work in the community. The first time I met Judy in person was at the GLAAD awards in 1999, when she came to meet and thank us for the work we did around his murder and in particular the media coverage. She admittedly knew little about the larger LGBT community but was full of very smart questions. Her most challenging one? "Why did Matt's murder get so much attention when this is such a common occurrence?" I answered as honestly and completely as I could, and I knew that across from me sat an extraordinary woman willing to ask the hard questions, educate herself and stand up. She said she wanted to take advantage of the "small window of opportunity" she had to educate peopple (she was a teacher after all). As I said to her, "think bay window, big window." When the editors of the Casper Star-Tribune, which won an award from GLAAD that year fortheir coverage of Matt's murder, were unable to attend, Judy did not hesitate to accept on their behalf. It was in that moment that, as her name came over the loudspeaker and over 100 people stood in unison, that she realized the power of her voice.
Since then, she has spoken to over one million students and others at colleges across the country, testified in Congress and worked tirelessly for LGBT rights. She shows up when her voice is needed, like the time I called her to come help the mother of FC Martinez, a young two-spirit youth killed in a hate crime in Cortez. CO (this murder did not receive a tremendous amount of attention but is now being explored in a soon to be released film and education project, see www.twospirits.org).
The foundation begun by the family, www.matthewshepard.org, is about to announce a campaign we should all get behind to help shed light on the violence and prejudice faced by all people and, as their mission states replace hate with understanding. Their main focus is youth and the section of the web site called Matthew Place is a safe space for young people as well as a resource. Not tolerance (Judy and I both have a big distaste for that word, as many do).
It will - as it always is - be an honor and a privilege to spend time with Judy this week and next. Part media person, part bodyguard, very much a friend, I love her as I love my other chosen family members and there are few people I respect as much.
I hope that as we approach the 10th year remembrance of Matt's death in October that we can constructively reflect on what work we still need to do to end the epidemic of hate crimes against our community, how we can better engage allies like Judy in our work and work for the kind of media coverage and legislation we need to create a culture we can both be proud of and feel safe in.
I'll be posting more and hope others will join in the conversation. In 1998 we had a President who picked up the phone and called the Shepards to offer the condolences of the nation, I know Lawrence King's family got no such call. Hopefully our next leader will have us in his or her sights.