It is etched into my brain in the way traumatic events tend to be. Like time stopped and painted the perfect picture and hung it in my mind so that I could always see that moment so clear. I was 23, I had just come to my parents house after a college class.
I stood, soda in hand, watching CNN in the living room and for what seemed liked minutes, I simply forgot to breathe. The details were just beginning to be released of a young man tied to a fence post like some grotesque scarecrow in the middle of a Wyoming field. His shoes were taken so he could not run away even if he could attempt such an act. He had been targeted because he was gay.
I remember crying, I think many of us did when we heard the story. My father came in and asked me why I was so emotional over some stranger I didn’t even know. In that moment I was him and he was me. In that moment gay people everywhere were united in a sorrow
and in the cold knowledge that it could be any one of us. If it could happen to a regular kid in Wyoming, it could happen in our towns.
The passage of time brings healing, yet it breeds complacency as well. Not only is it easier for those of us who lived through it to forget, but we add a generation who only know of the past through stories we tell. We can cheer for the passage of marriage equality, of hate crime bills adopted by so many states, of the visibility of LGBT people rising higher than ever…but if we do not tell our story, then we are doomed to slide backwards. A culture that is not vigilant in it’s progressive steps, who do not guard that progress like battle wise warriors, will lose it in the night while they are sleeping.
We need only look at the national stage over the past two years to see how our progress can be stolen from us. Hatred has removed it’s mask and come out of the shadows into full light without shame. It is times like these that our stories become more important than ever. Not to live in fear and propagate it, but to cultivate wisdom and to find the power we need to rise above it.
Matthew Shepard left this earth 20 years ago on October 12, 1998 but he has continued to live. Through organizations like The Matthew Shepard Foundation, The Tectonic Theatre Project (which brought us The Laramie Project), and our collective voices, we have the opportunity to continue to fight the hatred around us.
As a community, we have proven that we can accomplish much. In our current times it is more important than ever to raise our voices so that we may continue our steps forward, while safeguarding ourselves against any stumbles back.
To look back on this young man is not just important because a life should be remembered, it is an act of self-preservation. Tell the story of that day in whatever form it takes, pass it down as our ancestors once did before the written word, give Matthew life again. It is for him we remember, for us that we should never forget, and for the future that we will and shall memorialize him.