On Matthew Shepard

Fred Phelps, whose group protested Matthew Shepard’s funeral, still preaches hatred against queer people. This photo was taken two years after Matthew Shepard died. Photo by Callen Harty.

Fourteen years ago today Matthew Shepard died of injuries sustained in a brutal beating on a lonely road in the Wyoming countryside. He was left tied to a fence and found almost a day later by someone who thought at first that his body was a scarecrow. He died almost a week after the beating. It was said that the beating was so bad that the only part of his body not covered in blood were parts of his face where his own tears had washed the blood away. Matthew’s murder shocked the nation and drew attention to anti-gay violence. It also helped to lead to the addition of other groups to our nation’s hate crimes laws.

The unfortunate reality is that Matthew  was not the first lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) individual to die at the hands of hateful people. He was not the first one to be tortured simply because of his sexual orientation. And he was not the last. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs there were more murders of LGBT citizens in the United States in 2011 than in any other year in history. 87% of those were persons of color. 40% were transgender. Matthew’s murder drew attention to anti-LGBT violence, but it did not stop it.

I am one gay man and I have lost track of all the people I know who have been beaten or murdered for being gay. One was picked up in a gay bar, taken outside, and savagely beaten by two men, at least one of whom used brass knuckles. Another escaped a knife attack outside of a bar. Yet another was beaten outside of that same establishment. Still another friend survived a knife attack and died four months later in a separate incident after a beating with a two by four. I have so far escaped physical harm, but have had beer bottles and death threats flung at me, simply for being. Most of the queer people I know have been harassed or threatened, if not actually assaulted.

Most of the beatings and murders of LGBT citizens do not enter the public consciousness. They happen every week in this country and pass without notice. Those of us in the queer community may note them, but the general public doesn’t usually even hear about them. Occasionally, a particularly brutal crime will surface and get attention for a short while, but then the violence is put back in the closet, right where the attackers want it (and us). When there is an arrest the defense is still often what is known as the “gay panic” defense–basically, “he hit on me, so I hit him.” All too often this works. It was the defense used by the murderer of my friend and that killer was rewarded with only a few years in prison.

Matthew Shepard’s case drew greater attention than most for several reasons. Just as Amber alerts and sensational news stories about missing youths are more often about pretty young white girls, Matthew was a cute young white guy. If it could happen to him then it could happen to the son or daughter of any white middle class family. It touched a nerve in the majority culture. As long as people of color, poor folks, drug-users, sinners, or others that the majority could easily be unconcerned with were the victims the violence could be ignored. When it was a good-looking, young, middle-class college student . . . well, that was a different story and one that resonated.

Further, there was an underlying symbolism that reflected the religious viewpoints of the predominant culture in our country. Jesus was known as the shepherd and Matthew’s last name was Shepard. In addition, he was mercilessly tortured and beaten, much like the taunting and suffering Jesus endured while carrying his own cross to Golgotha. Finally, he was tied to a fence, almost as if crucified, and left to die. These details stirred emotions in the general public in a way that other crimes against LGBT victims did not.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it didn’t resonate greatly with me, too. It did. The sheer brutality of it and the complete lack of compassion or remorse from the murderers had an effect, as did the symbolism. The fact that he was someone I could have had a crush on impacted me, too.

Fourteen years have passed and Matthew Shepard’s murder still resonates. He is the public face of many victims. He represents to us all of the victims that any one of us may know. My friend Earl’s story and murder were just as horrific as the death of Matthew. The entire country should have mourned for him as well. The entire country should mourn for any person–gay, African-American, Jewish, and on and on–who dies as the result of bigotry. We should mourn for the lack of outrage at the violence that occurs every day throughout this country. We should mourn that lives are so meaningless that as a society we don’t notice their passing.

Remembering Matthew Shepard should remind us that there is work to do yet. Today I light a candle in my heart for Matthew, but it is also for Earl and for all victims of hatred and violence. May they rest in peace and may we somehow find peace for all of us.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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