Remembering Matthew Shepard

October 13, 2011

On this day in 1998, Matthew Shepard, a wisp of a boy, was tied to a fence post and left to die overnight in freezing temperatures after a crushing assault. He’d been bashed to death for a simple reason: he was queer.

Twenty one years old but looking more like a pre-teen, Shepard was hardly recognizable as human when he was found.

Four days later, on October 17, I went to Casper, Wyoming, a Chicago Tribune reporter, to cover the funeral.

The service took place inside St. Mark’s church, where Shepard had been an acolyte. Bouquets lined the walls; outside, hundreds of mourners surrounded the church in the cold, heavy snow that fell all day long. Tree branches cracked from the weight of the snow, power went out five times during the service.

One of the most striking things about the Shepard funeral was that the LGBTQ community took a deliberately low profile. “There appeared to be no organized gay community presence, but that may have been in response to requests from the Shepard family and gay and lesbian national organizations that anti-gay protesters not be confronted at the funeral,” I wrote in the Trib piece.

Instead, the focus turned almost exclusively to nongays: The protestors from Fred Phelps’ hate church held up signs that said “Matt in Hell” and “AIDS cures fags.” Casper families protested against them in turn, passing out yellow ribbons with the word “hate” and a slash through it.

I remember an unbearable loneliness standing in that crowd, a numbing anonymity, a sense of being erased as a gay person, even as what was being headlined was precisely Matthew Shepard’s fate as a gay person.

But I didn’t write the piece in first person -- it was straight up news. I did, however, include these last two grafs, a way, I think, of being present, of acknowledging the fear, and of standing up:

“Among those who came to say their farewells were gay men who had driven in from out of state. Ed Holtzhauser, a 24-year-old accountant from New Jersey, was among them. As he got out of his car less than a block from the church Friday morning, a yellow pickup truck drove by and its driver yelled an epithet.

"After hearing about this, I felt nothing else in my life was as important right now as being here, showing support," Holtzhauser said."