Matthew Shepard died October 12, 1998 – fifteen years ago. This month I have already attended three events memorializing his death. The first was a screening of the Emmy-award winning teleplay The Matthew Shepard Story (starring the amazing Stockard Channing as Judy Shepard), where I served as the moderator for an impassioned question and answer session for the monthly meeting of Comunidad, the Ministry of Gay and Lesbian Catholics group where I serve on the board at St. Matthew’s in Long Beach, CA. I also recently attended two productions of Beyond the Fence produced by the South Coast Chorale, in which my friend Robin Mattocks performs. This musical created by Steve Davison and others moved me to tears several times—and I know and teach the story of Matthew Shepard every year at this time—I have already done so four times this month. I attended with a friend the first night and because I am a professor the director let me come to the Gala the next night where I met Matthew’s real life best friend Romaine Patterson.
Romaine is described in the casting call for this show as “a 19 year old lesbian in a leather coat, fun loving, strong best friend (in other words—a butch dyke). Romaine was a featured panelist at the event. Romaine was also the one who created the “Angel Action” — the wall of angels which effectively blocked the Shepard family from having to walk by Fred Phelps and his band of religious homophobes at the trials of the murderers of Matthew. Phelps and his ilk held signs aloft with slogans such as “Matt dies! God laughs!” and “Fags burn in hell!” The Angel Action activists wore wide white wings that extended, due to an ingenious construction, that created wings a few feet above the heads of the wearers (mostly Matthew’s college friends) and hid the protesters behind the wings of angels. The Angel Action launched in 1999 has been copied all over the world.
So, this story of Matthew Shepard is not just a story for me (or for most people). It is also an event that happened, and helped shape our lives and our activism and our commitments to social change. It is an event we memorialize, and in so doing, re-commit to those promises we made back in 1998 when we chanted and marched and sang and lit candles—never, never again can this happen. Never again. I remember being in the street in West Hollywood walking with those lit candles in 1998—hoping against hope in those 5 days that Matthew Shepard lay in the hospital that somehow the killers did not do their worst—he would not die –this skinny 5’2” blonde boy who was apparently doing the amazing gay activism of working on National Coming Out Day in Wyoming. But I, along with the rest of the world, watched and waited—and Matthew died—a victim of hate—and brutal beatings that left him tied to a fence post for 18 hours and then in a hospital room for 5 days. The whole world waited and watched. And then Matt died. And we mourned and then we changed—we worked towards making anti-hate legislation include hatred against gays because of Matthew Shepard’s death. It was desperately sad and crazy-making and revolutionary that it took this horrible event to finally say that hatred towards gays was a hate crime—and it took many years and lots of work for that to happen. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (lest we forget that that same year on June 7 a Black man was tied to the back of a truck and killed in Jasper, Texas and this death galvanized the hate crimes legislation as well.) passed on October 22, 2009 and was signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 28, 2009 as a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010 (H.R. 2647). The measure expanded the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
But this year is an anniversary year of Matt’s death. It is the 15th year of his murder. And so this is the year that a new book has come out. Steve Jimenez, also a gay man, has written a book that says the murder of Matthew Shepard may not have been a hate crime because Matthew’s killers may have known him well—so well that maybe one of them was also a sometimes lover. Matthew may have been involved in drugs, specifically crystal meth (not just pot smoking as has been documented previously). One might well ask, as I did, why is this book coming out at an anniversary year? Some say it sheds all the aforementioned “new light” on the case of Matthew Shepard. Some say it does not prove anything.
And so the questions begin—is the Matthew Shepard we thought we knew, the one we memorialized and mourned, the one who actually lived, or is he a fiction? Was he really that blonde skinny five foot two, 102 pound innocent or was he a meth dealing lost boy hanging around and having sex with dangerous folks —that’s what happens when you live like that—type of kid? Because according to this new book Matthew is not the almost impossibly perfect poster child of gay rights–a gay white college boy working for gay rights activism who was slaughtered by two men and left to die—a crucifixion type death that took five days, 18 hours of which were spent on the cross.
It matters, right? What really happened, who Matt really was – right? I was there with the candles when I heard of his death, as were so so many others. And it matters to us—right?
The day after his death, I went to teach Gender Women’s Studies (then Women’s Studies) and I cried in front of my students and then sang to them because I didn’t know what else to do. So in 1998 I sang a 1975 Holly Near song to my students, “It Could Have Been Me,” about the Kent State massacres and murder of Chilean poet Victor Jara. “And it could have been me, but instead it was you./ So I’ll keep doing the work you were doing as if I were two…/If you can live for freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom! …if you can live for freedom, I can, too.”
And I have continued to repeat that story and sing that song for fifteen years to different groups of students and to talk about activism and what it means and why it is important every October.
The story goes that the folk singer Victor Jara in 1973 had his fingers cut off…or were they broken…or were his hands cut off? …by the Chilean Junta Pinochet’s regime and the legend goes that he kept singing. Until they gunned him down. Are all the facts true? Some say yes. Some say no and put energy into debating what parts are urban legend—were his fingers actually broken before they murdered him? Or were they cut off? Or was he “just” murdered?
At this point, you dear reader, as well as I, am asking—does it matter? Victor Jara was brutalized and murdered and his murder became a catalyst for change. Matthew Shepard was brutalized and murdered and his murder became a catalyst for change.
Here is Victor Jara’s manifesto, and this is his perhaps his last poem, smuggled out of the stadium shortly before his death:
We are 5,000, here in this little corner of the city./How many are we in all the cities of the world?/ All of us, our eyes fixed on death./ How terrifying is the face of Fascism
For them, blood is a medal,/carnage is a heroic gesture.
Song, I cannot sing you well /When I must sing out of fear.
When I am dying of fright./When I find myself in these endless moments.
Where silence and cries are the echoes of my song.
There was a Facebook campaign last year with an image of Matthew—and the tagline “Matthew Shepard is a friend of mine,” riffing on the Facebook ‘friend’ concept. Matthew didn’t live to be an actual Facebook friend—or did he? He feels like my friend. He feels like an icon. He feels like my personal history as well as a story as well as…and like all of that I guess in the end it doesn’t matter to me if Matthew was angelic—because his death created angels. “Where silence and cries are the echoes of my song.” His mother created the awe inspiring Matthew Shepard Foundation, which has done so much amazing work for so long; she became the poster parent for many many parents who needed a poster parent and a symbol of why you should love your gay kids now—because it’s dangerous to be gay—love your kids now. They might not always be here. “When silence and cries are the echoes of my song.” He became the reason for the creation of Romaine’s Angel Action. She told me the reason she created the action was because it wasn’t right that people like Phelps thought he had God on his side—and gay people didn’t. Creating the angel action said loud and clear—we have God on our side, too. “When silence and cries are the echoes of my song.”
Matthew Shepard was HIV positive; he was gang raped on a college trip in Morocco; he did use drugs—whether they were stronger than pot is not “officially” known—but that he was a pretty heavy pot smoker is well-known; he didn’t talk about his rape easily and it may have been the thing that led him into harder drugs and the thing that led him to date dangerous folks—one of whom may have forced him into unprotected sex which led to the HIV. He had a hard life—this little angelic looking guy . Can he still be an angel…when silence and cries are the echoes of my song?
I think we probably all have “our Matts”—those gay folk that we know that struggle and are here—just barely. And their deaths, or their beatings, should all make national news and create social justice movements. But, they often don’t. I thank God and her angels for whatever configuration components that led to the sea change in gay activism that came after Matthew’s murder. The cultural capital afforded an upper class blonde college boy allowed the matrix of domination to shift towards allowing gay hate legislation to crack open the dominant paradigm and assign some legitimate language that hopefully can be used for all or “our Matts” who may not have, and usually do not have, the cultural capital that Matt had. That is the hope of the legislation.
However, yes, I have, as many of us have had, “our Matts”—and some of them have been incredibly close to me, close to my life. These are the ones people think—well, she/he is not heroic— sad, but not heroic. The person of whom might have been said, I wouldn’t build a movement around their death. After all– they were drug addicts, prostitutes, down on their luck, poor, and did dangerous stuff. Well– personally for me, if this new information about Matt proves to be true—“it doesn’t prove anything” for me in terms of changing the story of Matthew. We built a movement –when silence and cries were the echoes of our songs. It may be makes more sense to me—he was a gay guy in Wyoming in the 90s. And of course he was pre-the sea change of Matthew Shepard activism. How many of us know gay folks, or are gay folks, who barely escaped gay hate with our lives—or didn’t escape? Who live lives of quiet desperation? Who live lives of danger just because it’s so hard? Who are on drugs or are alcoholic because even today it seems like a bar is the only place to really be? Who knows closeted gay folks , like Matt’s killers, who lash out from their own internalized homophobia? Is any of this new information about Matthew Shepard new to gay folks? Or is it new because it’s about Matthew?
A recurring theme in Beyond the Fence was Matthew Shepard’s character continuing to say “I’m Matt,” referring to himself as the real person, the person who lived, not the icon who has died. Maybe someday Matthew Shepard’s death will be “Our Matt’s” death—in celebration of all “our Matts” and not just Matthew Shepard, the icon. But the day the band stopped playing—around gay hate—is not here yet.
Steve Jiminez—Matt Shepard is a friend of mine, and I have his back…still.
Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; and an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University. She is also a first degree black belt in karate, Shorin-Ryu Shi-Do-Kan Kobayashi style. Ms. Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.