Matthew Shepard
Matthew Shepard | Handout/Fair Use Image

“As dusk fell on October 18 and the day’s heat withdrew into a crisp autumn evening, nearly 400 people gathered in uptown Charlotte’s Marshall Park to honor Matthew Shepard, a young gay man they never knew, and to send a message that the time of meeting anti-GLBT violence with silence was over,” wrote Wanda Pico in a special feature for Qnotes’ October 31, 1998 issue.

I was 21 years old that night, a college student attending UNC Charlotte, and living in a small apartment just south of the city’s uptown.

Matt (as his family and friends refer to him) and I were born just weeks apart.

On October 7, Shepard was brutally beaten and left to die, tied to a wooden fence outside Laramie, Wyoming. He succumbed to his wounds and died on October 12. Months before, I had come out to my mother on a park bench in front of what is today Two Wells Fargo Center Plaza. With its bronze statues of children playing in the nearby fountain, tears filled my eyes as I left my own childhood behind and revealed my true self, fearing that I might lose the only family I had known.

Like Matt’s mother, mine accepted me that day and has shown me great love ever since. Matt had come out a few years before his death. Judy Shepard recalled the moment in a 2018 ABC News interview. “He said, ‘Mom I’m gay.’ And I said, ‘What took you so long to tell me?”

According to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, “Matt had a great passion for equality.”

He was born in Casper, Wyoming but moved with his family to Saudi Arabia when in high school. He attended The American School in Switzerland, where he was a peer counselor. He briefly attended Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina before transferring to Casper College in his hometown and later the University of Wyoming where he studied political science, foreign relations and languages. He enjoyed theatre and was part of the Wyoming Environmental Council.

I will be 47 years old this November – a life that I feel has so far been well spent. Shadowed by a life taken, I often wonder what Matt’s life would have been like. His legacy has challenged and inspired millions. As the foundation in his name states, “the life and death of Matthew Shepard changed the way we talk about, and deal with, hate in America.”

What would it have been like for Matt to bring a boyfriend home? To graduate college or get his first professional job? Matt’s father, Dennis Shepard, said he had dreams of working at the State Department in the previously mentioned 2018 interview.

Would he have marched alongside me and thousands of others in the 2009 National Equality March, the one that called for expansion of hate crime laws and led to the passage of the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act”? Would he have danced the night away at gay clubs and experienced the joy of Pride festivals across the globe? Where would Matt Shepard have been the day the Supreme Court struck down state bans on marriage equality? Would he have fallen in love, gotten married and found his dream?

A Mother’s Story

At the time of Matt’s death, I didn’t think much about what my mother’s experience might have been. Perhaps I should have, but maybe it was just the reaction of a 21-year-old focused more on his own emotions than that of others in the moment.

For this column, I asked Karen Graci to share her reflections on that day and the 25 years since. Graci is the executive director of PFLAG Charlotte and shared these reflections via email.

“In 1998, the brutal attack on Matthew Shepard made national news. As the mom of a one-year-old, I was horrified as I watched the story unfold. Yet, it wasn’t until I watched the Celebration of Life & Interment of Matthew Shepard at Washington’s National Cathedral in 2018 (twenty years after his death) that I began to comprehend the horrific truth and harsh reality of hate and violence against LGBTQ+ people.

“By then, my husband and I were parents to a high schooler and a college student, one of whom had come out a couple of years earlier. I was volunteering with PFLAG Charlotte, an organization whose mission is to create a caring, just and affirming world for LGBTQ+ people and those who love them. At PFLAG, we lead with love, and we meet parents right where they are. We see both the fierce love parents have for their child and the deep-seated fears they have for their child’s safety and well being.

“Watching Matthew Shepard’s Celebration of Life, I thought about the struggles faced by many of our PFLAG families, including my own. We were all increasingly aware of the challenges faced by so many LGBTQ+ individuals simply because of who they are. The story of Matthew Shepard and his family was heartbreaking.

“It’s now 2023. I’ve had the privilege of serving as PFLAG Charlotte’s first Executive Director, and our kids are now young adults. I’m thankful for The Matthew Shepard Foundation and its wide-ranging efforts to Erase Hate. Hate is violence and bullying against LGBTQ+ individuals. Hate is prohibiting medically necessary healthcare. Hate is banning LGBTQ+ themed books. Hate is the recent legislation in North Carolina that directly targets LGBTQ+ people, families, affirming schools, and healthcare providers.

“Yet, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because of local organizations like Charlotte Trans Health, Time Out Youth, Freedom Center for Social Justice, Gender Education Network, RAIN, and Transcend Charlotte. I’m hopeful because of the growing number of affirming and inclusive spaces and businesses nurtured by organizations like Charlotte Black Pride, Charlotte Pride Band, One Voice Chorus, Stonewall Sports, and the Carolinas LGBT+ Chamber. I’m hopeful because of advocacy efforts led by Equality NC and Campaign for Southern Equality and funding efforts led by The Plus Collective. I’m hopeful because 260,000 people showed up for Charlotte Pride in August. And I’m hopeful as I think about the PFLAG families I met eight years ago and continue to see today . . . LGBTQ+ individuals, allies, families, and friends helping to grow the caring and just world that Matthew Shepard envisioned.

“Ultimately, that’s what we’re all fighting for – each human’s right to live, to love and to thrive in a world just as they are.”

On October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.” This year marks the 25th anniversary of Shepard’s death. Since that time, the Matthew Shepard Foundation has provided hate crimes training to 1,060 law enforcement officers and 76 prosecutors, and through local, regional and national outreach, has worked with communities across the country to empower people to create change and address hate within their schools, neighborhoods and homes.

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