Today, Friday October 26th 2018, the ashes of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard will be interred in the Washington National Cathedral in a service conducted by Bishops Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and Bishop Gene Robinson. It is 20 years since Matthew’s death on 12th October 1998.
In those 20 years, a lot has changed, some things have changed for the better, but some have changed for the worst. Matthew’s death in a homophonic attack has come to be one of those defining moments, that we wish had never happened, but which changed the landscape forever. His death has had a similar impact to the suicide of 14-year-old Manchester teenager Lizzie Lowe.
Matthew was picked up in a bar in Laramie Wyoming by two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. McKinney and Henderson beat him up and left him tied to a fence to die. Matthew was found and taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he died six days later from severe head injuries. He never regained consciousness.
Many people around the world are attacked and some are killed, but some events take hold in the public consciousness and the attack on Matthew was one of them. The days after he was found and taken to hospital were days when anger grew at the attack. There were candlelit vigils held around the country as people prayed or him and the country.
His funeral in 1998 was picketed by Christian demonstrators from Westboro Baptist Church. Their presence caused deep hurt and outrage. Westboro Baptist church was back in Laramie to protest at the trial of McKinney and Henderson. But this time there was a counter protest, which has become famous in its own right. The Angel Action counter protest had people dressing in oversized Angel costumes, big enough to hide the Christian protestors from view.
So, why does this matter now? Many LGBTQ+ people in the UK, may never have heard of Matthew Shepard, but they will know his legacy. His murder added to the calls for a bill against Hate Crime to be introduced in the US. This took a long time, but was eventually enacted into law in 2009. Matthew’s death was one of the most visible examples of someone killed in a hate crime. The Matthew Shepard Act was adopted on July 15, 2009.
His death achieved more than that. The counter protest to Christian demonstrators that was so public and visible has become widespread. In this country we see Christians at Pride showing support for the LGBTQ+ community and acting to neutralise the effect of Christian protests at Pride events. A Christian presence at an event is no longer defined as one of hate and exclusion, those of us who believe in inclusion and affirmation can now make our voices heard in a more powerful way.
Matthew’s parents kept his ashes at home with them, but now they are being buried in the National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church that Matthew belonged to, in a service conducted with an out gay bishop. This service affirms all of us who are gay and Christian and it is a pound day for the LGBTQ+ community in America and around the world.
The Matthew Shepard foundation set up in his memory can be found here www.matthewshepard.org
The book Judy Shepard wrote about Matthew and his murder – The Meaning of Matthew – can be bought here amazon.co.uk
The film about the events in Laramie – The Laramie Project – can be bought here amazon.co.uk
The National Cathedral has the following page cathedral.org/matthewshepard
where the service can be live streamed or watched later.
The service book can be downloaded at Matthew_Shepard_service.pdf