“Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine”
I’m a 37 year-old heterosexual French woman raised in a traditional Catholic family. I barely traveled during the first 15 years of my life. My whole education took place in a private school in Paris. I was a scout, then a scout leader. And when I was younger, most of my friends had the same background as mine. Actually, my only true rebellious side is that, despite of it all, I’m a convinced atheist, which has become some kind of a joke in the family.
This short introduction of myself, in some way, is very reductive but sums it all about the kind of person that I used to be: polished, naive and pretty ignorant about life.
Long story short, 11 years ago, as I was starting my career in London as a French teacher in an independent school, I had literally no experience of what the real world was made of.
On a lazy Saturday evening in my small flat, my attention got caught by a movie being played on TV. I didn’t even check the title and missed the beginning. It was about a certain Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was savagely beaten in 1998 by 2 guys he met in a bar, was tied to a fence and left for dead there for 18 hours before being found. He didn’t make it and died from his injuries at the hospital after 6 days in a coma.
I’ve always been a very emotional person so I of course cried a lot, as I always do when I watch dramas. But at some point in the movie, I understood that Matt was not a fictional character and that what happened to him was real. Unlike other soap movies that I had watched before, it left a very painful and puzzling impression on me. Although I kept doing the usual stuff over the following days, that impression remained and I couldn’t stop thinking about him. That led me to a lot of googling and reading about Matt, his family, the attackers, the court case and the worldwide repercussions. My interest had nothing to do with some kind of morbid curiosity, I was simply in deep shock because of the brutality, the nonsense and the randomness of the attack that occured just because 2 guys didn’t mind their own business. I wanted to understand.
“Hate crimes” was not something I had ever heard of before. I knew that human nature could be very cruel and violent (I was naive but not stupid) the same way it could also be kind and altruistic, but in retrospect, watching the movie and learning more about Matt was the trigger to realizing the unfairness of what being “different” means. I was aware of racism, bullying, discrimination, etc. But at the time, in my world, I had never heard of people being attacked because of their sexual orientation (especially since I didn’t have any gay friends or family back then). From that moment, by keeping udpated via the website and Facebook page of the “Matthew Shepard Foundation” that Dennis and Judy Shepard founded, I learned about the story of other people like Matt, about the LGBT community, and about the amazing work that is done everyday by the founders and members of the foundation. They make a difference by providing support to victims of hate crimes, and their commitment and activism resulted – among other things – to the implementation of the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act” signed by President Barack Obama in 2009.
What makes me write about Matthew’s story 19 years after he died and 11 years after I watched the movie, is the documentary “Matt Shepard is a friend of mine” that I watched a few days ago. I was as heartbroken and outraged as a decade earlier but, in some way, I was also glad to know more about Matt through the eyes of his close ones. It made me realize that we are all – as a son, a daughter, a father, a mother, a sister, a brother or a friend – leaving a mark on the people around us in one way or another, and that the love that we spread is also the love that we deserve to receive. Matt didn’t deserve the hate that killed him – no one does – but luckily and thanks to his family and friends, he has a legacy. That won’t make it up for what he could (and should) have become as a man, that won’t make it up for what happened to him, and that won’t make it up for the atrocity of the crime itself. But his legacy is something huge anyway, and the way it opened my eyes is just a tiny glimpse of how powerful and impacting the people who speak for him are, and how education and awareness are crucial in changing the world for the better.
Matt Shepard was not a friend of mine, but when I look at what my life is today and the way I see the world, when I look at the amazing friends that I have now, Matthew could have definitely been one of them.