Today, October 12, marks the 19th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death.
On October 6, 1998, 21-year-old Matt was robbed, pistol-whipped and tortured by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who had pretended to be gay to gain his trust. His attackers strung up him on a fence and left him for dead. Matt was eventually discovered and taken to the hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries six days later.
It seems like so long ago, and yet we’re still reeling from the Pulse nightclub massacre that saw 49 innocent lives extinguished by by the same hate that fueled Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. A 2014 FBI report found that members of the LGBT community are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority. Of 5,462 “single-bias incidents” (hate crimes with a single motivation) 1,115 were motivated by a bias against a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Of these incidents, 56% targeted gay men specifically. (It’s worth noting that, in 1998, no one was talking about the epidemic of trans women of color being murdered in this country—a crisis that is growing with each passing year.)
The fight must continue—for more hate-crime legislation, for sensible gun-control laws, for the end to homophobic laws and attitudes that further demonize LGBT people. But for now, let’s celebrate Matthew Shepard’s life and legacy.
In 2014, Judy and Dennis Shepard released a trove of letters they received after Matt’s death—from everyone from parents and schoolchildren to President Bill Clinton and civil rights leader Coretta Scott King.
“The epidemic brutality that took your son’s life and has caused so much pain to your family must be confronted and stopped,” wrote Mrs. King. “Americans of conscience must work a lot harder to eliminate this sick culture of violence that threatens even our best and brightest.”
Matt’s death sparked a national conversation about toxic homophobia and hate crimes in this country: His parents were spurred on to become activists, founding the Matthew Shepard Foundation and helping to get the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act signed by President Obama in 2009. The two were honored as Logo Trailblazers in 2015.
The moving documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine features interviews with Matt’s family and friends, and incorporates home video of Matt himself, to invoke the tragedy of his loss and the beauty of his life.
Director Michelle Josue, a close friend of Matt’s, won a Daytime Emmy for the film, which is a must-see. “While we’ve come a long way in the last fifteen years, LGBT inequality and hate crimes are still very real today,” said Josue, “and parts of Matt’s story are unfortunately still very much a part of young people’s realities.”
The film doesn’t simply recount the horrors of Matt’s murder: It illuminates who he was and how he had changed throughout the years. “It gives a glimpse of how he lived instead of only how he died,” says Judy Shepard. “It helps them see the true depth of the tragedy and the terrible cost of hatred.”
Below, Dennis Shepard discusses Matt’s legacy with Logo TV.
Joe Ehrman-Dupree contributed to this article