Remembering Matthew Shepard

On October 4 Rhode Island College (RIC) hosted Judy Shepard to reflect on the life and legacy of her son Matthew 20 years after his hate-motivated murder. NASPA co-sponsored a panel to discuss campus inclusion initiatives. We invited the RIC Pride Alliance to reflect on the impact of the event. Read on to hear from RIC senior and Pride Alliance member, Britt Donahue

Content warning: descriptions of violence, bullying, homophobic/misogynistic slurs. 

October 12, 2018, marks twenty years since Matthew Shepard died in a Colorado hospital from injuries he had suffered six days earlier. He had been brutally attacked by two young men and left to die, tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. The attack was motivated by hate – because Matt was gay.

The brutality of Matt’s murder sparked national outrage and highlighted the need for federal protections for LGBTQIA+ Americans. Matt’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard established the Matthew Shepard Foundation, so they could fight for justice in their son’s memory.

Last week, Judy Shepard came to speak at Rhode Island College where I am a student and member of The Pride Alliance. Many of my fellow students did not know Matt Shepard’s name. Some of them were not even born yet in October 1998, but I remember. So I would like to tell you what Matt Shepard means to me.

I was ten years old when Matt Shepard died. I was in fifth grade. I loved to read. I collected Beanie Babies. My best friend was Queer. So was I.

It was easier for me than it was for him. I was sort of a Tomboy, but mostly I performed my gender “appropriately,” and managed to avoid being bullied for my secret crushes on both boys and girls. My friend wasn’t so lucky. Masculinity is rigidly defined, and no one enforces it quite like pre-teen boys. My friend was too gentle, too kind, too sweet, for a boy. He would rather spend recess jumping rope with the girls than run around with boys. The boys noticed, and I watched, helpless and confused as my best friend was called “girl,” “pussy,” and of course “fag.” I didn’t know what “fag” meant, but it was obviously something bad. There was no way it applied to my friend.

The murder of Matthew Shepard was national news. It was everywhere. Everyone was talking about it. I hadn’t paid much attention to the news, or to adults, before, but this was unavoidable. And I heard that word again. From the mouth of a hateful man at the gas station, looking at the newspaper: “just a faggot.” Being a fag wasn’t just something that would get you bullied – it could get you killed too. I was terrified.

Neither one of us had the language to articulate our sexual identities to ourselves or anyone else back then. That would come later, as we grew up, entered high school, and watched the conversation surrounding Queer identities and rights became more mainstream. As the country became more accepting, it was easier for us to accept – and become proud of who were. This is what Judy and Dennis Shepard were working for, by honoring their son’s life through activism.

Matthew Shepard was proud of who he was. So were his family and his friends. He was loved, and he is missed. The men who beat Matthew, and left him to die alone on the prairie did not realize – or did not care – that the world would be a darker place without Matthew in it. They saw him as “just a faggot,” not a human being who touched the lives of the people around him.

Matthew Shepard should have turned 41 this year.

It is up to us to join his family in fighting for a world he would have been proud to live in.

About the author: Britt Donahue is a senior at Rhode Island College working towards a degree in English major with a gender studies minor. Set to graduate this spring, Britt plans on pursuing a graduate degree in library sciences. Britt enjoys a love of photography and will happily read any book she can get her hands on.