By Ramanda Lazaris
When Matthew Shepard died fifteen years ago, LGBT people were not as widely understood or accepted as they are today. The brutal 1998 murder of the gay college student helped inspire changes. And there is still much to be learned from his story, filmmaker Michele Josue told an audience gathered for the world premier of her documentary “Matthew Shepard was a Friend of Mine.
“I am here to stand up for Matt since he can’t be here to stand up for himself,” Josue said Oct 4 as she opened a weekend of events at the Washington National Cathedral dedicated to reflections on the lives and stories of Shepard and other LGBT youth.
The film described Matthew Shepard’s life as he traveled with his parents, Judy and Dennis, and his younger brother. He attended schools all over the world, where he built many strong friendships. It was those friends who Josue sought out, retracing his journey to piece together his portrait.
“All of his friends are scattered all over the world, so I think this film was a long overdue conversation between us,” Josue said.
The movie concluded with members of the audience on their feet, clapping, and many crying.
“When everyone stood up, it was really heartwarming, so thank you,” Josue said.
Also in attendance were Matthew Shepard’s parents. Judy Shepard reminded the crowd that although her son was gone, his memory would live on in major civil rights legislation designed to protect others. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal hate crime law to include violence based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.
Judy Shepard, who has authored a book entitled The Meaning of Matthew and who, with her husband Dennis has established a foundation to work for social change, told the audience that the sharing of personal stories has made a huge difference in helping others understand the reality of the lives of young LGBT people.
Attendees of the event left in a murmur, offering thoughts on the evening and condolences to the Shepard family. Some acknowledged though progress has been made, more work needs to be done to ensure the civil rights of people regardless of sexual orientation.
“I think that often times as a gay man I take things for granted, particularly a gay man living in the District of Columbia where I have almost all the civil rights offered to me that I could want,” said attendee David Duxbury. “I feel very comfortable and then you realize there are a whole bunch of other people who are still continuing to fight for various civil rights and recognitions.”
Another attendee, Umberto Campia agreed.
“I think that we really need to continue our strong fight to help transgender and LGB people, and many people that still have no recognition within our society,” said Campia. “ I think they are the most vulnerable. “