On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was brutally attacked in an anti-gay hate crime. He was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence post, and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Six days later, on October 12, 1998, he passed away form his injuries, dying only 50 days before his 22nd birthday.
As someone who was born in 1993, I was not old enough to know or understand what happened to Matthew Shepard. It wasn’t until 2007 when I saw a production of the Laramie Project, a documentary theater piece about Matthew’s death, that I even learned about who he was or what even constituted a hate crime. And it wasn’t until I came to terms with my own homosexuality and starred in a production of the Laramie Project myself that I truly empathized with and understood the gravity of his death.
I think a lot about Matthew. As a 23-year-old gay man, it’s hard not to. We are similar in many ways—both tiny, effeminate, and completely opposed to any form of athletics, and when I think of him, I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to have been in his position. I can’t help but imagine being left for dead because of my sexual orientation, and that’s because despite the strides we’ve made toward LGBTQ+ equality in the past 18 years, things haven’t really improved all that much. Trans people are being denied basic human rights, queer people of color are being marginalized and killed, and gay teens are 8.4 more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
When I think of Matthew, and how I have now lived a longer life than he had, I have to wonder what he would think about the world we currently live in. How would he feel about the legalization of same sex marriage, and the bathroom discrimination laws in states like North Carolina? Would he be proud of the country we live in, or disappointed by how little progress we’ve made since 1998?
On the 18th anniversary of Matthew’s death, I also find myself reflecting on what occurred on June 12, 2016. Every time I go to a gay club, every time I witness something homophobic or transphobic, I think of Omar Mateen and the 49 people he slaughtered inside Pulse. Every time I am told that the fight for LGBTQ+ equality is over, I have to remind myself just how grossly inaccurate that statement is. We are still fighting the same battles we fought in 1998, and I can say with complete confidence that in 2034 we will still be trying to overcome the obstacles we face today. Change is slow and painful. Things will only get better if we acknowledge that they aren’t good now. Same sex marriage may be legal, but we have so much ugliness to combat, and we can only do that by holding ourselves and others accountable for the culture that perpetuates this ugliness.
We cannot forget people like Matthew Shepard, and we cannot try to distance ourselves from tragedies like Pulse. We need to own the ugliness and will ourselves to work to make things better. We have to acknowledge and unpack our homophobia and transphobia, we have to question and scrutinize our prejudices, and we have to be willing to take a stand even when it may make us unpopular amongst our peers. We must do right by Matthew, by all the trans people like Crystal Edmonds who have been senselessly slaughtered, by all the LGBTQ+ youth like Jamey Rodmeyer and Leelah Alcorn who took their own lives, and by our 49 brother and sisters taken from us at Pulse. We owe that to them—and ourselves.