This past Wednesday, October 12th marked eighteen years since your (Matthew Shepard’s) death. If you were alive today, you’d be 39 years old (nearly 40)—an eternity in “gay-years”! Just kidding, I don’t really believe in that. But, maybe you would have, and hopefully you would have had someone, say a friend or a husband/boyfriend/partner, to tell you that you’re ridiculous for believing in such silly things.
In honor of the anniversary of your tragedy, I bought and read The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project. I’m sure you know, Matt, that this company wrote a play about the Laramie community in the midst of your murder through interviews and found text related to the incident. I mean, there are a lot of books and movies about it, but I decided to learn more about you and your legacy by reading this play. I had never read it or seen it produced, but I hear it’s pretty famous. I also hear that you’ve done theater before (as any good gay boy does), and I wonder if you would have liked it, if, somehow, you could have seen a play like it when you were alive. Perhaps, maybe if what happened to you had happened to somebody else? I don’t know.
I liked the play. I think it’s honest. I think without all the corny sentimental overlay music that they use in the HBO film version (which I watched), it would be quite objective, and yet personal. Yes, the creators/interviewers of the play are liberal and gay, but I think they really wanted to capture the truth of the citizens of Laramie, both the non-gay-affirming individuals and the affirming. People believe what they believe, and they are entitled to that. Prejudice exists and we need to be honest about it before we can do anything to help combat it. How religion and spirituality ties into all of it is complex and difficult to see clearly, but even within religion, prejudice exists. Hate exists in us all.
Was this a hate crime, Matt? That’s kind of the question of it all, isn’t it. The Right says that the gay community had an agenda and blew the whole incident out of proportion. They said that you were also involved in drugs, and that could have played into your murder as well. Some Laramie residents wondered if the case would have reached national headlines at all if you had not been gay. I mean, in my opinion, it probably would not have. But does that mean that the gay community sensationalized it? I don’t think that either.
It’s strange to think about: “Why was I murdered?” Taking for granted that departed souls can think, that is. Like any other incident that has ever taken place, it’s not like there’s one, sole “reason” or “purpose” or “motive” for every thing that we do. Especially if your murder wasn’t premeditated—who knows what series of events, words, and feelings led to that violence that led to the end of your life? We have testimonies from people at the bar and confessions from your murderers, but what else? Nothing really, besides the evidence: your beaten, tortured, unrecognizable body left tied to a fence.
If it wasn’t a hate crime, if your being gay didn’t play any part, would there have been such a degree of violence in this “robbery”? Violence that left you, I repeat, unrecognizable? Violence that could be compared to a car crash at 80 miles per hour? I wish you were here to tell us, Matt, to tell us for sure. To tell us if they spit on you as they left, or how many times they may or may not have called you a “faggot.”
Fear creates prejudice, prejudice breeds hate, and hate leads to violence. Human actions are not a result of a singular thought or feeling, such as “I’m going to kill this man because he’s a fag.” Human actions result from a mixture of thoughts, feelings, pressures, lessons, views, and perceptions. While it is impossible (and improbable) to say that your sexuality was the sole reason for your murder, Matt, it is also inconceivable that the fear, prejudice, and hate that underlies a homophobic society were not even a tinge responsibility for influencing the actions of the men (who were your age) who murdered you. Nothing happens in a vacuum.
I’m just trying to say, well, I don’t know. It’s strange and corny to be writing you this letter, but I am trying to connect my experience to yours. While it’s not fair to make you a martyr, since on the one hand you’re just an innocent victim, it’s also impossible to ignore you and what happened to you because—well, you could have been me and I, you. I could have been born in Wyoming, I could have gone to school in Laramie if my circumstances had been different. The same forces that contributed to your murder eighteen years ago could also kill me today. And I can’t forget that, I refuse to forget that.
You didn’t choose to be murdered. You didn’t do anything worth being celebrated other than being who you are. You may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But none of that really matters because it did happen, and it was you it happened to. So, I’m going to thank you. I guess that’s why I’m writing this.
Thank you, Matt. For representing our community and for giving us a voice. Your death created and contributed to a dialogue that continues to this day for gay dignity and visibility, and the vulnerability of gay youth. I read that you were interested in pursuing political science in undergrad and were heading towards human rights advocacy. While your destiny is not the path you envisioned or wanted, I hope you are able to still feel pride for what has been done in your name, for the many good things that have been and will continue to be accomplished. For this, you have become a martyr.