The site where Matthew was murdered, 20 years on. Twitter photo
On this date in 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, died after having been abducted from a bar one midnight to a remote area outside Laramie, tied to a fence, robbed, stripped, repeatedly pistol-whipped in the head, and left in near-freezing temperatures - all because he was gay. The beating was so savage that, 18 hours later, when a mountain biker found the mangled, bloodied, unconscious body still draped over the fence, he thought it was a scarecrow. Six days later, Matthew died in a Fort Collins, Colo. hospital, his family by his side. Over time, his short life and the brutality of his death became a mournful rallying cry for the fight for LGBTQ equality, with plays, songs and movies keeping his memory alive.
Matthew's killers, Aaron McKinney and Russel Anderson, were found guilty of murder and given multiple life sentences. But with no federal protections at the time for gay people, they were never charged with a hate crime. In 2009, after years of campaigning by Matthew's family and rights advocates, President Obama signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named for Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., a black man also viciously killed by hate. For 20 years, Matthew's parents eloquently, painfully shared his story, traveled widely to #EraseHate, and worked to protect LGBTQ rights through their Denver-based Matthew Shepard Foundation. But their anger and grief never subsided, and they never found anywhere that felt safe enough to bury their son's ashes.
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This week, on the 30th annual National Coming Out Day and in a time of rising hate crimes against LGBTQ people, the famed Washington National Cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Church, announced Matthew's ashes would be buried there in a public celebration of his life on Oct. 26. The church cited "with grateful admiration" Matthew's parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard: "Your example of strength, courage and love when enduring the unimaginable makes us all better." The ceremony will be presided over by Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde and Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal priest and a friend of the Shepard family. “All of us human beings need special places to go and remember important things," he said, "and I think this could become a destination for LGBTQ people who have known violence in their own lives."
Matthew's family and others praised the action by the cathedral, which issued a statement honoring a death that "gave life to a new generation of activists and allies who are committed to proclaiming God’s love for all of God’s children - no exceptions or exclusions." The Episcopal church has long been supportive of LGBTQ rights, and almost 200 noted American figures have been interred in the Cathedral, from Woodrow Wilson to Helen Keller. Matthew loved and was welcomed by the Episcopal church he attended, said his father, who called the cathedral the perfect "final home for Matthew." His mother also suggested, hope against hope, the site will provide solace and inspiration. "He now will rest in a sacred spot," she said, "where folks can come to reflect on creating a safer, kinder world.”