What has changed—and what hasn’t—in the 20 years it has taken to bury Matthew Shepard

The Matthew Shepard Memorial Bench at the University of Wyoming.
The Matthew Shepard Memorial Bench at the University of Wyoming.
Image: AP Photo/Laramie Boomerang, Andy Carpenean
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Twenty years ago today (Oct. 12), Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student at the University of Wyoming, was killed. He had been beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead. On Oct. 26 his parents will finally lay him to rest, at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

For the past two decades they’ve held on to their son’s ashes, fearing that any memorial site would be desecrated. As the Episcopal Church makes a space for him to rest in peace, it’s worth reflecting on how the world has changed for the American LGBTQ community since his death.

In 1998, gayness was in an awkward place. The LGBTQ community had become much more visible in American life through the tragedy of the AIDS crisis. Gayness existed in the political and cultural spheres. Rather than repealing the ban on gays in the military, President Bill Clinton struck a supremely strange compromise in 1993 with the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, that removed questions about sexual orientation from the screening process for military service, but required  any soldier who revealed that they were gay to be discharged. A little more than a month before Shepard’s death on Oct. 12, 1998, Will and Grace debuted on NBC.

So long as they were polite, attractive, and funny without being edgy, Americans could get down with the gays—queer people were invited to the table so long as they knew not to speak without first being spoken to, with the tacit understanding that uncomfortable or thorny topics like homophobia or non-binary gender identity were strictly off limits.

When Shepard was murdered, the idea that live-and-let-live was an adequate stance toward the gay community died with him. The brutality of his murder, and then the presence of protestors at his funeral, screaming ghoulishly about sodomy and hell, woke the nation to the reality of what was at stake for anyone who simply existed in the world as gay. Shepard’s death was a catalyst that made being morally neutral on the issue of gayness impossible.

In the 20 years that Shepard’s ashes have remained unburied, a lot has changed. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is history, and openly gay soldiers proudly serve in the military. The Defense of Marriage Act, another Clinton-era law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, was struck down in 2013, and in 2015, gender constraints were removed from marriage in all 50 states by the Supreme Court.

Pope Francis, though a complicated figure for the LGBTQ community, has been the most progressive pope in history, famously telling reporters, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” In 2003, the Episcopalian church consecrated the first openly gay bishop—V. Gene Robinson, who will lead Shepard’s interment on Oct. 26, alongside Mariann Edgar Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

On television, gay characters are normal enough to be unremarkable, and gay men aren’t just seen as arbiters of taste, but as a positive social force, here to free us from the bonds of toxic masculinity. The binary notion of gay and straight has expanded to include a much wider range of sexual and gender identities, and transgender people and issues have become increasingly visible.

At the same time, 20 states still don’t consider crimes targeting gay or non-gender conforming folk to be hate crimes, including Wyoming where Shepard was murdered, and which has no hate crime laws at all. In 28 states it’s legal to fire someone for being gay or trans. Pope Francis is not universally beloved in the Vatican, which remains homophobic. New people still join the Westboro Baptist Church, the congregation that gathered at Shepard’s funeral to make sure his parents knew that their “God Hates Fags.” They own that url.

In their annual report “The Year in Hate and Extremism for 2017,” the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote, “Perhaps the biggest winners in terms of policy from Trump’s election have been hardline anti-LGBT groups that now have nearly unfettered access to, and sympathy from, the Trump administration.” The US does not formally recognize transgender identity on the federal level, and President Trump has issued a ban on military service for transgender people, repealing a directive from president Barack Obama  allowing them to serve. Meanwhile, transgender people continue to be  frequent targets of violence, particularly trans women of color.

There is no question that the US is a better place for the LGBTQ community now than it was when Shepard was murdered, or that his death contributed to that movement forward, at a terrible price, both through general awareness, and the specific advocacy work of The Matthew Shepard Foundation and the play The Laramie Project. Shepard has also been the subject of two movies, The Matthew Shepard Story, and Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine.

In some ways this legacy of Shepard’s physical body, echoes that of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi in 1955, for allegedly speaking to a white woman. His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley insisted that her son’s body be sent home to Chicago, and then, upon seeing his mutilated corpse, demanded the right to show the world what had happened to her boy with an open casket funeral. With their sons’ tragic bodies these parents have made it clear, that the cost of racism, of homophobia, violence and hate, cannot be avoided by simply declining to engage.