'Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine,' and My Son

People see parts of themselves in Matt, both good and bad, and then the message sinks in, that these victims are more than icons or figures. They're people who feel love, pain, happiness and sadness.
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The film "Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine" is a documentary by Matt's high school friend Michele Josue, focused on sharing the story of "Matt," the person, friend and son that the world didn't have the opportunity to know when a brutal anti-gay hate crime cost him his life and turned him a historical figure in the LGBT civil rights movement.

After Matt's death, Dennis and I started the Matthew Shepard Foundation with the hopes that we could prevent similar tragedies from happening again. By sharing our story, by talking about Matt, maybe we could reach other parents whose children might be questioning their sexuality. We wanted to share the message that it's important they choose to accept and love their kids rather than throw them away.

We felt we needed to make sure we were doing everything we could to stop another parent from losing a child to such hateful violence. As time went on and we shared Matt's story with more people around the world, this also became a way we could keep his memory alive, to humanize our son and remind the world he was so much more than how he died.

But as years passed, Dennis and I also came to the conclusion that there was this "Matthew Shepard" we didn't recognize. People who didn't know him were making him into this angel, this perfect human who was lost to tragedy, and that wasn't Matt.

I always felt that Matt's story would be more authentic and powerful if his friends told their stories, too. But they needed time, and they needed to be ready. We knew it was only a matter of time before Michele would approach us about telling this story--and the film she's now made is her story of Matt, and his friends' story of the life they knew with him in his short time with us.

I thought this was the perfect way to do it, and we trusted Michele completely to find balance among the different stages of Matt's life for those who don't know his story, for those who didn't know the Matt we knew. She accomplished that, and has helped people realize that he was a three dimensional person, not just a newspaper story. That he was a human being with issues and flaws, family and friends who loved him, and that it's unfair to think of him in any other way. Michele set out to remember the Matt she knew and find others who were ready to share their stories as well, and this made Matt real to people.

This film is entirely Michele's vision and the memories of Matt's friends, who in some ways had a better idea of who he was at any given time because they were actually with him while Matt was in school or living in Denver or Laramie. Every time Dennis and I watch it, we see something different. Every time we watch it, it's difficult, because Matt's there on the screen, and we see him, and then he's gone again.

The reactions to the film have been really rewarding for us. Viewers hear more about who he was and how he had changed throughout the years, getting a glimpse of how he lived instead of only how he died. It helps them see the true depth of the tragedy and the terrible cost of hatred.

Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine has already been screened all over the world. It's been named a top documentary at numerous festivals and it seems every critic has their own meaningful take away for the film. But for us, this is about honoring the authentic Matt and giving people the chance to see someone beyond a headline.

With the film now opening in theaters across the country, I hope people will be reminded that Matt was an ordinary boy who experienced both struggles and triumphs in his life, that he was real to so many people. He was a human being who was attacked and killed simply because of who he was. But more importantly, that Matt is one of many who have been made victims of anti-gay violence. Our work to influence and pass legislation, to share our story, is not about Matt. It's about all the men and women, young and old, who are still targets to this day because of who they love.

People see parts of themselves in Matt, both good and bad, and then the message sinks in, that these victims are more than icons or figures. They're people who feel love, pain, happiness and sadness. They had lives familiar to our own, but somehow some of us are allowed to live when others aren't. When people see and hear about the real Matt, the Matt we knew, it's my hope they'll understand what we're fighting so tirelessly for.

Watch the trailer for "Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine" below. For more information visit the film's official website here and check out its Facebook page here. For more information about the Matthew Shepard Foundation, visit its official site and Facebook page.

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