On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming. McKinney and Henderson decided to give Shepard a ride home—six days later he died. I remember the morning he died, I watched the news before I went to middle school and saw the innocent-looking blonde boy flash along the bottom-left corner of the television screen as my reflection looked back against the quick news flash. His face stayed with me all day as I thought about his suffering, his pain, and how my suburban hallway bullying was nothing compared to what he experienced.
And this realization should have opened up a world where the bullying didn’t hurt as much, but it still did. And suddenly I felt overly dramatic. How can I complain about my situation when this poor Wyoming boy is dead? My limitations were exposed, left me tied up and bound, each time someone at gym called me a girl, but they were nothing compared to the ties that bound Matthew to that fence and exposed for the world to see.
And when I heard that word fag hurled at me that very same day as I rushed to my locker with my JanSport slung over one shoulder and the weight of marble notebooks and three-ring binders smacking against my back, I stopped in my tracks and felt something.
It was the very first moment when I truly understood how connected the LGBT community and narrative is. Even though I was not out to anyone, let alone myself, it was the first moment where I collapsed in grief over someone who I had never met. My back pressing against the cold, blue metal lockers, I fell faster than my tears. Somehow, my sadness brought me a strength and connectedness to a greater level of community—particularly in the days following as I watched gay people (for the first time) on TV news broadcasts.
That day, however tragic, for so many of us in the community and our allies, has lead to so many positives in the world, but we must not forget the sacrifice Matthew and his family made for us to come together and work tirelessly to end such hate.
Matt’s beating, hospitalization, and funeral focused worldwide attention on hate. Good is coming out of evil. People have said, ‘Enough is enough.’ I miss my son, but I am proud to be able to say that he was my son. Judy has been quoted as being against the death penalty. It has been stated that Matt was against the death penalty. Both of these statements are false. I, too, believe in the death penalty. I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process, to show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is to do so, because of Matthew. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, the 4th of July, remember that Matt isn’t. Every time that you wake up in your prison cell, remember you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. You robbed me of something very precious and I will never forgive you for that. Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of someone who no longer lives. May you have a long life. And may you thank Matthew every day for it. —Dennis Shephard
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