The woman biking by thought he was a scarecrow. Lashed to a buck fence outside of Laramie, Wyo., practically crucified, Matthew Shepard was robbed, pistol whipped and left for dead. Clean lines ran down his face where his tears had washed the blood away. Matthew died six days later. That was 20 years ago.
Last Friday morning, the bells of the National Cathedral slowly tolled, and Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, walked Matthew Shepard’s ashes down the nave as a single flute played “Morning Has Broken.” Reaching the altar, he sat Matthew’s ashes down, smoothed out the pall, and gave it a gentle pat — a reassuring touch of comfort, rest, finality — one last thing he could do for him. It was one of the sweetest, saddest things I have ever witnessed.
Some have called Matthew Shepard’s death and the outrage it activated a sort of second Stonewall for LGBT Americans. And while the reasons for that could be seen as a bit troubling to some — Matthew was blonde, white, from a middle-class background, others had suffered as badly with no national media attention — of course none of this was really Matthew’s fault. And all things being equal, I’m sure he’d rather be with us, living his life. Truthfully, Matthew was no Rosa Parks. When mythic, historic status is reached, the real fabric of who a person was can often get lost. Talking to people that actually knew him, I learned that he smoked too much, or at least his mother thought so. He ran up a credit card; he skipped class. But he was also thought of as “gentle,” “shy, but never rude,” And I was told, “we all called him Matt.”
The day before his service at the Cathedral, across town at the Smithsonian, several of Matt’s personal items were being donated by his family. His sandals, a Superman cape from his childhood, a wedding ring Matt bought, in hopes that one day he’d find the one. Matt and I were the same age then. And in many ways, were at the same place in our lives. And like so many gay men in the late ‘90s, we took refuge in ragtag campus gay groups, driving miles to gay bars in other cities. Living out and proud and exploring freely for the first time what our identities could really mean. Laramie was really Anytown, USA, and Dennis and Judy, seeing them there mourning their son, were in many ways any American mom, any dad.
Now Matt is at home, in our National Cathedral, occupying the highest spot in Washington, D.C. It’s more than simply a commanding presence in the city’s skyline, a marker in stone, a marker of history, a place of national mourning, celebration. Matthew’s coming here adds to all that, while also bringing a narrative of security, safety, love and tenderness.
In the south balcony before the service, people turned and greeted one another. Sitting behind me were Joel and Ethan. They were married in the Cathedral just last year. Ethan seemed to sum up what we were all feeling. The service was more like “a coming home” — welcoming Matt with joy to a safe place. Gesturing around him, Ethan went on to say that the “beautiful stone Cathedral represents not only a physical safety, but a spiritual one.” The words safe, or safety, were probably uttered more than two dozen times by the people I spoke with. And in truth, Matt’s parents held on to his ashes for so long out of concern that in any final resting place, Matt would need to be safe. All this time they worried that any gravesite might be vandalized. The Cathedral gave them peace at last. And with hate crimes currently on the rise in America, let the monument that occupies the highest point in the city serve as a constant reminder that higher ideals will eventually win out.
Before Friday’s service, I visited the Cathedral. Dozens of tours, mostly school groups, were flowing through. There I managed to speak with a group of high school students visiting from rural southern Illinois just as they started their tour.
“Do you know who Matthew Shepard is?”
“No. . .sorry,” some responded.
I really can’t fault them. I probably would have got the same answer if I asked who Jimmy Carter was. Stopping another group as they were leaving, this time from St. John’s, Ind., I asked the same question. Four teenage girls stopped and turned to me.
“Oh yeah, we just learned about him.”
I followed up with what they thought of him being interred in the Cathedral; they shifted awkwardly in their matching white shoes, looking at each other, one answered, “well we go to a conservative Christian school back home. . .and. . .” Though she struggled to find her words I was fairly sure what she was trying to tell me. But at least now they’ve heard a different perspective on faith, love and acceptance. Perhaps they gave it some thought on the bus ride home.
Last Friday’s service was more than just a somber or subdued Episcopal ritual. At times, it had the hallmarks of a political rally, and it was in part also a homecoming, and not just for Matt. Gene Robinson began the service, already holding back tears, by speaking directly to all the LGBT congregants, of whatever faith, that had been hurt by their religious communities, “I want to welcome you back.” He closed his eulogy, saying “there are three things I’d say to Matt: ‘Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. And Matt, welcome home.’ Amen.”
Some 2,000 congregants rose to their feet in sustained applause.
Indeed. Welcome home, Matt.
Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer who contributes regularly to the Blade.