“Do you personally relate to Matthew Shephard? How did his death impact you?”
I furrowed my brow. I hadn’t expected that question. “I’d have to think about that a little bit.” I smiled up at the crowd for moment as they waited patiently. It was getting closer to 11 pm, and the crowd was awake, but we were all emotionally exhausted after the production of the Laramie Project that we had just witnessed.
The play had beautifully recreated the Matthew Shephard story. A group of actors had portrayed a few dozen people from Laramie, Wyoming in a rapid fire monologues, all based on interviews that took place after the horrible hate crime had taken place in 1998. Ranchers, friends of the victim, friends of the killers, drug addicts, bartenders, teachers, students, their only connection having been living in a small Wyoming town that had been ravaged by a nosey and impossible media that flooded the town for a time, then left it abruptly when another story had come along.
I flashed my brain back to 1998, when I learned about Matthew’s murder. He was only months older than me, just shy of 22, and I was turning 20. I was a Mormon missionary at the time, barely out of high school, and steadily internally torturing myself for being gay, begging in prayers every night for an impossible cure. The first person I had baptized on my mission had been gay. And I knew other gay people. But the way I thought of them at the time, gay people, I thought of them as weak of character, like they had succumbed to temptation, like they hadn’t been strong enough to stop themselves from being gay. Not like me, I was strong enough to not be gay… but I hated myself at the time, because the temptations kept recurring, kept coming back.
The thoughts spread through me and I looked back up at the crowd, a sad smile on my face. I was there as a social worker with training in working with the LGBT community, and as someone who had spent time researching hate crimes in recent months. Earlier in the day, I had given a lengthy presentation to the students at Southern Utah University, and now I was here for a post-show discussion. This had been the toughest question so far.
“Well,” I started, eloquently, “I was basically the same age as Matthew Shephard. I was 20 at the time of his murder.” The time he was punched with fists, pistol-whipped with the butt of a gun, kicked and beat more after being tied to a fence, and then left to die overnight with his skull crushed. He’d been in a coma for days before finally dying. “I guess his death impacted me a lot, it impacted all of us a lot. I grew up gay and religious and in a small town too.”
My eyes moved over the crowd a bit and I breathed out slowly. “More than anything at the time, I remember how whenever anyone talked about Matt, they were finding ways to blame him for his own death. I remember people saying terrible things. If he hadn’t been gay, if he hadn’t flirted with those men, if he hadn’t gone out alone, if he hadn’t been at a bar, if he hadn’t been drinking, if he hadn’t been so flamboyant, if he hadn’t experimented with drugs, if he had been smarter and not gone off with those two men… if if if… then he wouldn’t have been killed. And no one was talking about the killers, no one was outraged in the same way I was outraged. I remember his death scared me. It was one more reason to not be out of the closet, because if I was out of the closet then I could get attacked and beat and killed like Matt had been. And in my brain, I figured that didn’t happen to people who weren’t gay. And in my brain, I guess I thought it was Matt’s fault too, at the time.
“And I didn’t realize that there had been hundreds of other men attacked and killed for being gay. I just knew about Matt. And I saw the protestors at his funeral, and I saw how his parents spoke up and chose not to pursue the death penalty for one of the killers, and I heard no words from the Church leaders that I looked to for guidance about it.
“And that was almost 20 years ago. And Matt didn’t live. I lived. If that had been me, all of the experiences I have had since then would be erased. I wouldn’t have served a mission, or gone to college, or had children. I lived, and Matt didn’t. And his family has had every day since then without Matt in their lives. His parents and his brother, his family and friends, they never got to see what he would become. So I guess Matt’s death affected me a lot.”
There was a pause before I decided I didn’t have anything else to say. The questions continued for a bit, and the evening ended, and there were hugs and handshakes and goodbyes. And then I was dropped back off at the hotel.
I looked out at the horizon in the dark over the nearby streets of Cedar City, Utah, and I felt temporary, as this would be one more moment that would soon be passed.