“Matt would have been 42 this year,” his father, Dennis, said to a roomful of journalists. He paused. I’m not sure it was because of emotion or for effect, but you could feel everyone in that room letting that soak in.
The event was the National LGBT Journalist Association’s annual convention, held this September in Palm Springs, Calif. Dennis, and Matt’s mother, Judy, were part of a panel titled “Matthew Shepard: Twenty Years Later.”
I’ve written in the past about how, after sitting in San Francisco in front of a computer screen for days, hoping to find more information about a Laramie, Wyoming boy clinging to life after an anti-gay attack, I decided I needed to return to Salt Lake City. I had to come back and resume “the fight.”
Matthew Shepard hoped to have people recognize his face as someone who changed the world for the better for LGBT people.
When Judy first saw Matt in the hospital after the attack, she couldn’t tell that the swollen, blood-covered, bandaged face was Matt’s. It was a knob on his ear and the blue of his one partially opened eye that convinced her it was him.
But today, we all know Matthew’s face. He did, indeed, change the world for the better.
“I just wish it wasn’t in this way,” Dennis told the room.
Jason Marsden, the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation that Judy and Dennis launched after Matt’s death, said that he believes the reason this particular murder caught the world’s eye was because it had all the makings of a “good story.”
“The sometimes unfathomable rules by which news stories rise or fall in prominence cannot be unpacked here,” Marsden wrote. “Perhaps it would suffice to say that powerful stories, be they in the newspaper or in storybooks, share certain characteristics: compelling characters, exotic settings, dramatic changes of circumstance, cliffhanger endings. Especially to the outside observer unfamiliar with Wyoming, Shepard’s story shared them all.”
A conversation I had with a fellow publisher that weekend gave me pause.
Perhaps Matthew was destined to change the world, but because the universe knew Judy and Dennis would pick up the torch and run with it for at least 20 years.
And made change they have, even though they are feeling defeated by the current political climate and the uptick of anti-LGBT attacks and murders in the past two years.
The University of Wyoming in Laramie has a memorial bench with Matthew Shepard’s name on it. It reads: “Matthew Wayne Shepard Dec. 1, 1976–Oct. 12, 1998. Beloved son, brother, and friend. He continues to make a difference. Peace be with him and all who sit here.”