After all of these years I just found out that Matthew Shepard was a tiny 5’2″ in height. A bit in the news from Orlando’s Pulse massacre got me reading about him again and it broke my heart anew.
I remember being absolutely devastated by his story as a scared 15 year old with no hope of being able to tell anyone in my life who I really was or what I was dealing with. Matthew was me and I there wasn’t much hope.
Home was certainly unwelcoming for who I really was, I would find no solace there, and with Matthew’s murder it seemed the world was also against me. There were so many times I saw no possible positive future for myself.
I genuinely believed I was the only gay person in my town of 32,000 people. I thought there were maybe 7 or 8 gay people in my entire state of 4 and a half million. I was very, very alone.
I persevered because regardless of my own inevitable unhappiness, I wanted to be able to make a difference in other people’s lives. I bounced around a bit on what I wanted to be: a high school counselor, a teacher, a youth pastor, and ultimately a social worker, but it was always my hope to be able to help adolescents. That remains something I still hope for today, and have been able to put into action in many ways, though not yet as a career.
I have vivid memories from a couple years after Matthew’s murder of sneaking off to my parent’s bedroom when MTV aired their “Anatomy of a Hate Crime” movie about his murder. I pretended to be watching the news when my mom checked in to see what I was doing, making fast use of the “last” button on the remote control to cover myself. I sat on the edge of my parents’ bed trying to keep my tears to a minimum in case one of them walked in.
I felt like my chest was imploding from grief while feeling as though the rest of me were going to explode from the effort it took to prevent all out sobs. I wept for Matthew, but I also cried because there was a community at home and around the world that loved him and accepted him and didn’t think he deserved death as my church and my family had taught me he and all gays did. It was a glimmer of hope that I desperately needed. I wish I could beam a message back to that kid and tell him how much better things would get. To let him know that the community that loves him unconditionally is so much larger and stronger and warmer than he could possibly imagine, and to just hang on.
I read a series of tweets from an older lesbian earlier who was distraught over the Pulse massacre and recounted Stonewall and how the different generations after her have had their own symbols, including Matthew Shepard. Someone in the comments indicated they were in their early 20s and remarked that they had to look up who Matthew Shepard was because they had never heard of him. I guess it never occurred to me that there are young adults alive now who have never heard Matthew’s name. I don’t know why, but that hit me as incredibly tragic. It’s important to remember the names, the faces, the stories – they are all a part of our DNA as a community and a society and a reminder to work toward the kind of world we want for our children.
And though I never knew him, I will always mourn Matthew. I imagine the man he’d be today, that tiny, fragile frame having filled out some with age as he approached his 40th birthday this year. I wouldn’t know him, and that would be just fine because he’d be out there in the world happy and fulfilled living an ordinary life, not fated to being anyone’s tragic symbol.