20 years after Matthew Shepards murder, alternate narratives gain steam in Wyoming

20 years after Matthew Shepard\s murder, alternate narratives gain steam in Wyoming

Proud And Relieved: Matthew Shepards Remains To Be Interred At National Cathedral

Mr. Shepards killing in 1998, when he was a 21-year-old college student, led to national outrage and, almost overnight, turned him into a symbol of deadly violence against gay people.

Mourners flocked to his funeral that year in Casper, Wyo., but there were also some protesters, carrying derogatory signs. Mr. Shepards parents worried that if they chose a final resting place for their son, it would be at risk of desecration.

NBC OUTNBC OUT25 years of coming out: From Melissa Etheridge to Janelle MonaeHate-related homicides against the LGBTQ community have risen sharply since the 2016 presidential election, according to the Anti Violence Project, an organization that tracks these incidents. In 2017, the organization tracked 52 hate violence-related homicides against LGBTQ people — an 86 percent increase from 2016. While it is unclear whats behind the reported increase, the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ rights group in the U.S., has attributed it to the influences of anti-LGBTQ political rhetoric.

Now they have found a safe place. On Oct. 26, Mr. Shepard will be interred at the Washington National Cathedral, the neo-Gothic, Episcopal house of worship that is a fixture of American politics and religion.

Two decades after Matthew Shepards death, LGBTQ community still battles hate violence

I think its the perfect, appropriate place, Dennis Shepard, Matthews father, said in an interview on Thursday. We are, as a family, happy and relieved that we now have a final home for Matthew, a place that he himself would love.

Judy and Dennis Shepard speak onstage at Logo's "Trailblazer Honors" at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on June 25, 2015 in New York City.Neilson Barnard / Getty ImagesFor more than a decade, the foundation lobbied for better federal hate crime legislation, and in 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The federal law expanded the power of the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on sexuality and gender.

Two decades ago, Matthew Shepard was robbed by two men, pistol-whipped and tied to a fence in Laramie. He hung there bleeding in near-freezing temperatures until a passing bicyclist spotted him, thinking at first that he was a scarecrow. He later died in a hospital.

Kate Keating places flowers on the picture of Matthew Shepard during a memorial in Denver Oct. 12, 1998.Gary Caskey / Reuters fileBut activists say Matthew Shepards legacy and his parents efforts to spread LGBTQ acceptance have had a far-reaching impact on the hearts and minds of Americans. Under the umbrella of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Judy and Dennis Shepard launched Matthews Place, an online resource for LGBTQ youth.

His death was a wound on our nation, Mariann Edgar Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said in an interview on Wednesday. We are doing our part to bring light out of that darkness and healing to those who have been so often hurt, and sometimes hurt in the name of the church.

Weve seen a steady rise over the years of incidents of hate violence and also homicides of trans women of color that we also would really call a crisis,” Beverly Tillery, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, told NBC News. “I think people are starting to pay attention to [this] more, but there hasnt necessarily been a clear response in terms of taking action to stop the violence.”

The elder Mr. Shepard said his family had long searched for a fitting resting place for his son, who was once an altar boy in the Episcopal Church. They considered spreading his ashes over the mountains and plains of Wyoming, but still wanted a place they could visit to talk to him. They considered splitting the ashes.

At the cathedral, not only will the family be able to visit him, but so will guests from across the world.

Six days before his death, Matthew Shepards assailants — Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson — picked him up at a bar, drove him to the edge of town, tied him to a fence and brutally beat him. Eighteen hours later, a passerby discovered Shepard barely alive. He was taken to a Colorado hospital where he later died on October 12. Russell and McKinney were sentenced to life in prison.

Its a place where theres an actual chance for others to sit and reflect about Matthew, and about themselves, and about their friends, Mr. Shepards father said.

The tragedy also triggered a major shift in the way news agencies cover LGBTQ issues, according to Cathy Renna, an LGBTQ media activist. For more than a decade, Renna worked for the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD. After Shepards body was found, Renna traveled to Laramie, where she met with journalists covering the story to help them understand how common anti-LGBTQ hate violence is.

Mr. Shepards friend Jason Marsden remembers him as a young man who was passionate about global politics and human rights. He remembers the funeral in 1998 — how the attendees overflowed into nearby churches, and how some people came to protest with their signs.

Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was a big advance on legislation at the national level. But she said the legislations jurisdiction is narrow. It didnt have much impact, ultimately, on a lot of state-level laws, she explained.

Now Mr. Marsden, who works to promote his friends legacy as the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, plans to be there in Washington this month when Mr. Shepards ashes are interred in the crypt.

NBC OUTNBC OUTMatthew Shepard's ashes to be interred at Washington National CathedralThe play, performed over 2,000 times in towns and cities across the U.S., centers on the residents of Laramie as they struggle to understand how the murder could have happened in their town. Kaufman said the story is popular because many Americans see their hometowns in Laramie.

It is a noteworthy place to be at rest, and it invites conversations about the importance of this person and what this person represents in American history, he said.

Mr. Marsden added that Mr. Shepard liked his church in Wyoming and would have appreciated being interred at the grand cathedral in Washington. I think that with Matts sense of occasion and drama, he would have found that tremendously gratifying and very cool, he said.

The cathedral regularly hosts prayer services and memorials for politicians and presidents. It recently hosted Senator John McCains funeral. The ceremony on Oct. 26 will begin with a public service in the morning, and the ashes will be interred privately.

Bishop Budde will preside over the event alongside the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2003. He has since retired.

Bishop Robinson said he had been working with Mr. Shepards parents on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for years. He said that Mr. Shepards mother asked him about the possibility of interring her sons ashes at the cathedral, and that he helped to make it happen.

The administration, for example, has attempted to ban transgender military personnel, revoked visas from same-sex domestic partners of foreign diplomats, and established a special religious liberty task force advocates say will permit discrimination in the name of religion.

God can take something very, very bad and make something good come out of it, he said. I think thats exactly what the Shepards have done for all of us, taking this tragic, awful event and making something meaningful and productive out of it.

Tillery said transgender women of color are vulnerable to hate violence because they exist at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. In 2018 so far, at least 22 transgender people have lost their lives to violence, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Bishop Robinson said the country had made good progress on civil rights for L.G.B.T. people since Mr. Shepards killing, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage.

On December 1, 1998 — what would have been Matthews 22nd birthday — his parents launched The Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization with a mission to erase hate by replacing it with understanding, compassion and acceptance, according to its website.

Mr. Shepards name was on a bill, signed into law in 2009, that expanded the definition of violent federal hate crimes to include those committed because of a victims sexual orientation. And the Washington National Cathedral has honored Mr. Shepard before; in 2013, it hosted a screening of Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, a documentary about his life and death.

Judy Shepard remembered when then-President Barack Obama signed the act into law. It felt marvelous, she said, but also there was an understanding that it wasnt over yet — many things were still being denied the gay community.

But the work is far from over, Bishop Robinson said, adding that people are still being hurt and killed because of their sexuality or committing suicide because of trauma or alienation.

Its not just about the gay community, its every marginalized community in todays world, Shepard said. We all need the help and protect of each other, and if we started taking care of each other, that would be brilliant.

Mr. Shepards death became a symbol of the kind of mindless, pointless violence against us for no other reason than being who we are, Bishop Robinson said. It is important for us to remind ourselves that we are still trying to come out from under that shadow.

Several influential films were made in response to the tragedy, including the 2013 documentary Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, and The Laramie Project, a 2002 HBO film based on the play by Moises Kaufman.

About 200 people have been interred at the cathedral in Washington, including President Woodrow Wilson, Adm. George Dewey of the United States Navy, Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan. Mr. Shepard will be a quite welcome addition, Bishop Budde said.

We made such progress, and now its being tossed aside,” she explained. In particular, she is upset with the Trump administration, which has made efforts to pull back on hard-earned LGBTQ protections.

A lot has changed in the 20 years since Matthew was abducted, tied to a fence and left to die, Bishop Budde said. A lot has changed, but not everything has changed. It felt really important for us to say that we believe L.G.B.T.Q. people are beloved children of God, not in spite of their identities but because of who they are — who God created them to be.

To have Matthew sharing a facility with people like that is above and beyond what we ever expected, he said.

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(CNN)Twenty years ago this week, Matthew Shepard died after being beaten, burned and left tied to a fence in Wyoming by two men who targeted him because he was gay.


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