Wednesday, October 07, 2015

"Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine" ....

The thing that struck me first about this photo of Matthew Shepard --- look at that old-fashioned telephone. Just like the ones I still use most of the time, hopelessly outdated (me, too).

Also the fact that it was taken more than 17 years ago --- almost a generation. Young people performing these days in high school productions of "The Laramie Project" --- where they're allowed --- were in diapers when this young man was killed.

This is the 17th anniversary of the assault --- overnight on Oct. 6-7, 1998, because he was gay, outside Laramie, Wyoming --- that killed him. Pistol-whipped and tortured to the point that there was no hope for recovery. Tied to a fence. His body gave up early Oct. 12.

I finally got around last night to watching "Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine," Michele Josue's highly acclaimed documentary about the young man's life, and death. The 2013 film made its television premiere during late July and will be released on DVD later this fall.


That little guy --- five-foot-three and, at the most, 110 pounds --- became the public face of homophobia's toll worldwide, although many other societies have their own Matts.

Gradually, in part because of Shepard and his family, the nature of the conversation has changed. More than 10 years later, federal hate crimes legislation finally cleared Congress, despite at times overwhelming opposition from the Republican right and Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians.

Anti-discrimination legislation and anti-bullying measures cleared state legislatures in more progressive parts of the country.

The right of same-sex couples to marry gained increasing public support --- and eventually became the law of the land.

Young Matthew would most likely be pleasantly surprised by many aspects of the political and social landscape today, were some form of resurrection possible.


Other things haven't changed much, however.

It was interesting to learn from the documentary, for example, that Shepard was terrified that his parents and friends would reject him if he told them that he was gay. We all remember that fear. He was a lucky guy in that sense, loved unconditionally.

But I'm guessing fear still is an operational factor in the lives of every gay kid --- and some of those "kids" who continue to shape their lives around it are my age, or older.

Sadly, youngsters born into families at the conservative end of the religious, social and/or political spectrum, still have justification for their fears. But an increasing number have fewer reasons to be afraid --- and many are far more courageous now than we were when young.


On the other hand, potential violence and other expressions of hatefulness still are factors in gay --- and many other --- lives and most likely will be for a long time.

It never hurts to remember that Fred Phelps and his merry band from Westboro Baptist Church made their world premiere during Matt Shepard's funeral.

And it was not so much the Westboro message that conservative Christians disagreed with --- just the abrasive way in which Phelps and his followers presented it. Deep-seated hate remains embedded in many religious traditions. It is one of the reasons why they thrive.

It has resurfaced recently among Christians and politicians in reaction to the Supreme Court's marriage equality ruling and elsewhere --- largely racist responses to undocumented immigrants, Muslims and people of color.


"Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine" is a lovely little film --- well-told through the voices of those who knew and loved him. A little hard to watch sometimes (we know how the story ends), but worthwhile.

Matthew Shepard was just kid, flaws and all --- and it's good to remember that.

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