TW: death, murder, homomisia, hate crimes.
When I was ten years old, I had already been through a lot of rough stuff. I knew that I didn’t feel as girly as I ‘should,’ and knew I liked both boys and girls.
In October 1998, I heard about a man who was beaten and nearly dead. As more news came out, I learned that Matthew Shepard had been harmed because he was gay. To this day, there are conflicting reports about this, but I believe this played a part.
It felt like the whole world was watching. As a baby queer growing up in a conservative household, this attack hit me hard. I didn’t have the words to express my feels, but kept crying – something I absolutely hate doing.
I realized why people felt they had to hide their sexuality. Even today, when things really haven’t changed as much as we like to think, it’s understandable. I still feel a bit of fear when I go out dressed more manly – and won’t ever go out with my packer.
I wanted to go and attend a vigil or go counter-protest the WBC jerks. There are many reasons that couldn’t happen, but I’ve felt this pull to go there for a long time.
Matthew was HIV positive, something that wasn’t well-known until he was in the hospital following the attack. The reason this got notoriety was mostly out of concern for the responding officer. She had faulty supplies and so worked on saving Matthew sans gloves. There was a good amount of ableism around HIV afterward. I didn’t understand why people were so harmful, so judgmental. After all, I had already been tested as a child due to my doctors taking forever to find my diagnosis of Still’s Disease.
I will always wonder what kind of HIV and AIDS advocate Matthew would’ve become had he survived.
By the time he died the following week, there was already a movement started to improve hate crime laws. By 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This officially added sexual orientation and gender to then-existing hate crime laws.
In high school, I watched as classmates put on The Laramie Project – a play based on interviews with Laramie residents following Matthew’s death. I cried nearly the entire time. By the time I was in college, I was fortunate enough to attend a speech Matthew’s mother Judy gave about the events and her subsequent work on LGBT+ rights and hate crimes through the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Again, I cried for much of that.
As I’ve begun navigating my own queerness, it seems that there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of Matthew or his family. It’s such an odd thing to say since I didn’t and don’t know them. His attack and death taught me so much about the world, though, and the way it views us.
In June of last year, the husband and I drove his old car from Wisconsin to California to give it to my sister. Our route took us through Laramie, and I knew we needed to stop at the University of Wyoming campus to visit Matthew’s memorial bench. I sat on the bench, crying, and ‘talking’ to Matthew.
This was in the middle of me figuring out my gender identity, but before I’d come out to anyone. It was comforting to sit there, to be in a spot that was set aside specifically to remember Matthew and his life. I felt so peaceful afterward.
With rollbacks happening to our rights, we have to remember these fights. It’s been 19 years, but we are by no means done with fighting for our fellow LGBTQQIA2+ or disabled/chronically ill siblings. Matthew reminds me how much one person can impact others. He inspires me on days when I’m tired of constantly fighting bills and asking Congresspeople not to harm us.
Maybe he can help you keep fighting, too.