For twenty years now, the tragedy of my friend Matthew Shepard’s death has continued to change the fabric of my entire life. The day in 1998 when news broke about his kidnapping and beating shocked me into a stark understanding of the hatred that LGBT people like myself faced every day. My life continued to change when he was pronounced dead, and again at his funeral.
In grief, I exited the closet in the most public way I could, and began to become an activist, in Matt’s memory, and in his honor, and years later, in his name.
But what changed my life the most, perhaps, is the friendship and bond I have been privileged to share with his family—Judy and Dennis Shepard, in particular.
I’ve seen them laugh; I’ve seen them cry; I’ve seen them travel the country and criss-cross the world to continue honoring their son. This friendship began when I (among so many neighbors) volunteered to help open and sort some of the tens of thousands of letters they received from well-wishers two decades ago. Never in my life have I been more humbled by a set of parents. Never in my life have I seen a person—who has been gone almost as long as he was alive—change the course of a movement and a country.
Matthew Shepard was a special person for these reasons and more.
On December 1st, Matt would have been 42 years old. It is not lost on me that the office bearing his name, art dedicated to him, and countless awards presented to his parents in honor of their work for a better world, only exist because he was murdered.
He was a person who was pointedly inquisitive and painstakingly (sometimes painfully) argumentative, yet deeply gentle, and kind. We are the sum of all of our traits and we can only hope that if we are taken from this world too soon, our friends and parents would honor us in the same way. But we all know that not everyone lost to tragedy is remembered for so long, so vividly, by so many.
There was justice for Matthew, but not for Trayvon Martin. There was justice for Matthew, but not the 49 lost at Pulse. There was justice for Matthew, but not the dozens of transgender people—especially women of color—who are stolen from us year after year.
But to shine a light on the justice that is the legacy of Matthew Shepard, we hope, gives people comfort and strength and the determination to keep going — to keep honoring those we’ve lost. To continue fighting for the rights of the few.
It is our duty as loving and empathetic human beings to do this work and to continue shining a light in the darkness. We will continue to work towards erasing hate. We must. It’s a cancer that needs to be excised from our society day after day, and it starts with each of us.
Take a moment out of your day to remember Matthew on his birthday. To so many of us, he was just Matt. But however you have come to know of him or of us, we thank you for your generosity and support for the last two decades. May we continue to have the honor and privilege of celebrating the most important thing about Matthew Shepard: that he was a person who once lived among us, and should still.
Matthew Shepard Foundation