Matthew Shepard: His Cultural Impact

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In honor of the 16th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's passing, SFGN takes a look back upon some the books, plays and films that have attempted to explain his unique place in history. 

The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie and a World Transformed, by Judy Shepard (Hudson Street Press, 2010)

To many, Matthew Shepard is an almost God-like figure, a role that Shepard never intended to play. He had no idea, as he lay in his hospital bed dying, that his short life and horrific death was helping to change the way LGBT people were viewed in society.

Unlike Harvey Milk (1930-1978), the first openly gay elected official in history, Matt Shepard never intended to change the course of history. In “The Meaning of Matthew,” Matt's mom Judy Shepard, a sweet, simple yet very insightful woman recalls her initial reaction to the media sensation around her son's death, which began during that harrowing week he spent in a coma. 
"Who do they think we are, Elton John?" Judy wondered in astonishment.

Throughout the book Shepard recalls her son as a sweet if somewhat troubled kid who battled depression. She writes honestly of the fact that he was hardly the saint the media often paints him out to be. But he was her son, and she loved him. The book recounts Matthew’s childhood, the events leading up to his bashing, and Judy's own realization that, whether she liked it or not, her son had become an icon. 

With a matter-of-fact-honesty, Judy attempts to understand and explain why this particular gay bashing touched a nerve, and her own place as an LGBT spokesperson through the Matthew Shepard Foundation. You can't get closer to the real story than Judy Shepard's “The Meaning of Matthew.” The book remains available at Amazon in Kindle, print and audiobook editions.

“The Laramie Project” (2002) 
HBO's film of the same named play, written and directed by Moises Kaufman, who co-wrote the play with other members of the Tectonic Theater Project. The play and the film offer a dramatization of the aftermath of Shepard's death upon the town of Laramie, which was transformed by the attention his murder shined upon it. “The Laramie Project” script was based on interviews with a variety of Laramie residents. Shepard himself does not appear in “The Laramie Project,” yet his spirit hovers over the play, and the town, to this very day. “The Laramie Project” remains available on DVD at Amazon. The original play, which was first performed in 2000, continues to be used as a teaching tool to educate the public about homophobia. It can also be purchased at Amazon, albeit in book form.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation assists in making the play available to schools--see the Laramie Project Support Link at the Foundation's website.

“The Matthew Shepard Story” (2002)
Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing (a vocal LGBT ally) star as Dennis and Judy Shepard, bereaved parents dealing with the loss of their son, the trial of his killers, and their own unexpected thrust into the spotlight. The drama focuses on the Shepards as they struggle with whether or not to request the death penalty for the killers. Originally aired as a TV movie and produced by movie star Goldie Hawn, “The Matthew Shepard” story is a riveting, heart wrenching drama about forgiveness. 

“The Book of Matt” (2013) by Stephen Jimenez, Steerforth Press

Many people were appalled by journalist Jimenez' book, while others applauded it for telling what they called "the rest of the story".
After years of research and interviews with people who knew Matt and his killers, Jimenez concluded that Shepard and Aaron McKinney, one of the killers, had been lovers and meth dealers. The author claims that his book is a warning about the dangers of meth-amphetamines. 
There is no mention of “The Book of Matt” at the website for The Matthew Shepard Foundation, which we suspect says it all.

Other depictions of Matthew Shepard:

“October Mourning”

by Leslea Newman, a novel in verse about Shepard's murder, published in 2012.

“Laramie Inside Out”

Lesbian filmmaker Beverly Seckinger returns to her hometown of Laramie to see how Shepard's murder affected the city where she grew up in the closet. The filmmaker talks to grieving Laramie residents who are working to make their city, and the world, a better place. She also confronts the late Fred Phelps and his anti-gay minions of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in this 2004 documentary.

“Blood and Tears: Poems for Matthew Shepard”
An anthology published in 1999 by Painted Leaf Press. 75 poets offer their personal tributes to Shepard.

“American Triangle” (2001)

Longtime collaborators Elton John and Bernie Taupin dedicated the song American Triangle, from the CD Songs From the West Coast, to the memory of Shepard.

“Laramie” (2001)

Indigo Girls' Amy Ray recorded this tribute to Shepard on her 2001 CD Stag.

“Matthew” (2004)

Janis Ian, a 1960s teen pop star who has since come out as a lesbian, recorded her song Matthew in 2004. It's on her CD Billie's Bones.

“Jesus Is on the Wire” (2004)

1960s folk legends Peter Paul and Mary recorded Jesus on the Wire as one of their final tunes before Mary Travers succumbed to leukemia a few years later. 

Titus: “Tommy's Not Gay” (2001)
In this gay themed episode of the dark sitcom Titus, Christopher Titus mention's Shepard's death after Tommy's dad is gay bashed. 

“The West Wing”

The acclaimed Presidential drama included a story arc inspired by The Matthew Shepard Act, an extension of pre-existing hate crimes legislation which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. The Act was first introduced in 2001. 

 


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