Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a split rail fence and brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998. His death became the focal point for gay rights and federal hate crime legislation. Written by Matthew Shepard’s mom, the story evokes the real Matt.—“Matt’s murder wasn’t horrific because it ended an angelic life but because it ended a very human life riddled with all the complexities and contradictions each of us face.” Judy Shepard also discusses her own journey to becoming a gay rights activist.
Since The Meaning of Matthew really is a story about a guy who was quite human, I think you’ll be able to relate to it better than the original news stories that made him out to be a saint, or the later stories that demonized him. As in my last review (Columbine) this is an argument for taking a longer look at a historically important event.
When Matthew Shepard was gruesomely beaten in Laramie, his parents were in Saudi Arabia as his father worked for an oil company there. It took them awhile to get to his bedside after picking up his brother in Minnesota. When they arrived in Fort Collins, they were shocked by the media coverage of their son’s beating. Only then did they understand that Matt was not going to make it. They had so much to deal with—the death of a child is tragic in any case, but when a child is murdered, it must be incomprehensible. The attention of the media and the needs of well-wishers increased the Shepard family’s pain. It took awhile for Judy Shepard to realize why all these people were stricken, and she felt the extra burden of having to deal with their grief.
Both Matt’s parents knew that he was gay and had pretty easily accepted it. What they couldn’t accept was some of his self-destructive behavior at the end of his teens. Matt’s drinking and other problems hadn’t come from nowhere—he was the victim of a terrible sexual assault in Morocco, where he and some school mates from Switzerland were vacationing together. The attack affected his personality and his behavior. Still, his parents practiced ‘tough love’ with Matt, not allowing him excuses, and by the time he was murdered this seemed to have some positive effects.
Judy Shepard shares why her family accepted plea bargains for Matt’s murderers. Some details of the trial are tough to read, particularly because the defense tried to make its case around the ‘gay panic defense.’ In addition, the crazies from the Westboro Baptist Church (that family that goes to the funerals of military personnel killed in service to the country carrying signs such as “God Hates You,” “God Hates Fags,” etc.) was there with signs such as “Matthew in Hell.” Dennis Shepard, Matt’s father, made a lengthy address to the court after the murders’ sentencing. It alone is very much worth the read.
The murder of Matthew Shepard is a historically significant event that became the rallying point of civil rights groups across the country. This mom’s story about her son is an important read.