Cathy Renna

Has it really been a decade since Matt Shepard was killed?

Filed By Cathy Renna | March 10, 2008 10:15 AM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: hate crimes against LGBT people, Matthew Shepard, memorial service, Wyoming

For me, it feels like yesterday, although I said the same thing at the 5 year mark 1998MatthrewShepardMemorial.jpgin a piece published in the LGBT media. Matt has been gone for ten years.

This photo was taken at a press conference the morning Matt was killed. I had a friend ask if I was wearing a bullet proof vest (actually is was a wool blend, just chilly and windy in Wyoming all year round). But she made a good point.

At a panel discussion last week in New York, I once again told the story of going from a Family Research Council press conference on Oct. 9, 1998 to my office in Washington, DC and being bombarded with calls and emails about this young man found clinging to life in Wyoming after a brutal beating that was being described as a possible hate crime. Hours later, I was on a plane to Laramie, and things have never been the same since.

While this kind of marker - can it really be a decade? - should give us an opportunity to reflect on what has changed (and as importantly, what hasn't) I will also be reminded of Matt and his family very much this month for a variety of reasons. Of course, it has been the recent murders of Lawrence King and Simmie Williams Jr. that brought up all of the feelings of frustration and made me think of what their lives were like, how their families and friends must now feel, what will happen in the aftermath. The reality is that the community is better at drawing attention to these hate crimes, although never as much as the media really should, nor with the depth they deserve (although the L.A. Times is really trying to dig into Lawrence's story. The analysis of why Matt's murder got so much attention is a complex one I will explore in a future post.

This week, I will be spending some time with Matt's mother, Judy Shepard, who will be in New York for a variety of reasons, primarily to receive and award from GLAAD for her work in the community. The first time I met Judy in person was at the GLAAD awards in 1999, when she came to meet and thank us for the work we did around his murder and in particular the media coverage. She admittedly knew little about the larger LGBT community but was full of very smart questions. Her most challenging one? "Why did Matt's murder get so much attention when this is such a common occurrence?" I answered as honestly and completely as I could, and I knew that across from me sat an extraordinary woman willing to ask the hard questions, educate herself and stand up. She said she wanted to take advantage of the "small window of opportunity" she had to educate peopple (she was a teacher after all). As I said to her, "think bay window, big window." When the editors of the Casper Star-Tribune, which won an award from GLAAD that year fortheir coverage of Matt's murder, were unable to attend, Judy did not hesitate to accept on their behalf. It was in that moment that, as her name came over the loudspeaker and over 100 people stood in unison, that she realized the power of her voice.

Since then, she has spoken to over one million students and others at colleges across the country, testified in Congress and worked tirelessly for LGBT rights. She shows up when her voice is needed, like the time I called her to come help the mother of FC Martinez, a young two-spirit youth killed in a hate crime in Cortez. CO (this murder did not receive a tremendous amount of attention but is now being explored in a soon to be released film and education project, see www.twospirits.org).

The foundation begun by the family, www.matthewshepard.org, is about to announce a campaign we should all get behind to help shed light on the violence and prejudice faced by all people and, as their mission states replace hate with understanding. Their main focus is youth and the section of the web site called Matthew Place is a safe space for young people as well as a resource. Not tolerance (Judy and I both have a big distaste for that word, as many do).

It will - as it always is - be an honor and a privilege to spend time with Judy this week and next. Part media person, part bodyguard, very much a friend, I love her as I love my other chosen family members and there are few people I respect as much.

I hope that as we approach the 10th year remembrance of Matt's death in October that we can constructively reflect on what work we still need to do to end the epidemic of hate crimes against our community, how we can better engage allies like Judy in our work and work for the kind of media coverage and legislation we need to create a culture we can both be proud of and feel safe in.

I'll be posting more and hope others will join in the conversation. In 1998 we had a President who picked up the phone and called the Shepards to offer the condolences of the nation, I know Lawrence King's family got no such call. Hopefully our next leader will have us in his or her sights.


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Thanks for all you do, Cathy. Please send my regards to Judy and thank her on my behalf too. She is the utmost example of taking a tragedy and turning the grief into positive action.

Why did Matt's murder get so much attention when this is such a common occurrence?

I'm interested to know what your answer was.

I was one of those "over one million students" a few years ago. I remember she drew a large audience.

Cathy Renna Cathy Renna | March 10, 2008 1:34 PM

the short answer is that he looked like the "boy next store" and was a white, privileged, educated person so the media cared more because they do not care about the more gender non-conforming, people of color or otherwise marginalized parts of our communty. all true. but it does not explain why the community - both organizations and individuals - all got so furious and started having vigils, protesting, and finally paying more attention when these murders and attacks happen all the time. a week after returning to DC from Laramie the first time I was in an alley in baltimore at a vigil for a young black trans kid who was killed. about 2 dozen people and a couple of journalists. it is just like when i went to cortez CO to help the community in the aftermath of the murder of fred martinez (see www.twospirits.com) , a 2 spirit Navajo youth who lived in a trailer park. not quite as easy to get folks to support us or get attention - you all do the math. although it was Judy Shepard and other PFLAG moms who came to our aid and worked with Fred's family


It will - as it always is - be an honor and a privilege to spend time with Judy this week and next...

Very understandable. We heard her speak at OutRights last year in Calgary, and she's a very stirring, inspiring person with a lot to say. And very driven. I hope it's at least some consolation to her that her mark (and Matthew's) is still being felt far and wide, even ten years later.

You just never know what will be the spark that galvanizes people to action.

There were hundreds of people being lynched every year, but the 1955 lynching of Emmitt Till jumpstarted the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember some of the west Coast transpeeps eyes used to glaze over when we talked about hate crimes legislation and the ridiculous sentences that people got for killing transpeople at national conventions and conferences until Gwen Araujo was killed in their backyard.

We still have much work to do to drive home the message that not only is it NOT okay to take someone's life because they are GLBT, we need to make it clear to the legal system as well that people who do that should get punished with lethal injection or a lifetime prison sentence for doing so.

Monica, yes, murder is such an effective way to fight murder. And the prison system also does such a great job at preventing violence... More faith in the violent -- that will stop the violence!

Do you think 6 years is adequate punishment for the brutal beating and suffocation death of another person? That is what Gwen's killers got.

We have few choices when it comes to punishing people, and they are not always good choices. I mean it is stupid to lock up drug users for centuries, when treatment of their addictions could turn their lives around.

The thing is, what would an alternative be for violent offenders? There has to be a balance between justice, societies right to protect itself, and the rights of an individual.

Ethan Pleshe | March 11, 2008 3:47 AM

Cathy,

Thanks for talking about this very important issue. I have been a victim of a hate crime within the LGBT community. I was assulted because I am a transman by two gay men. I don't really know the answer to changing this type of hatered except for education (formal and informal).

Thanks for all the work you do.