The kidnapping and brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 served as a wakeup call for many Americans about the hate crimes being perpetuated against the gay community. Even at Shepard’s funeral service, there was no respite from the homophobic climate, as protestors arrived brandishing anti-gay signs. Fearing that their son’s grave would become a target of vandalism, Shepard’s parents did not bury his ashes for 20 years.
Now, as Michelle Boorstein reports for the Washington Post, Dennis and Judy Shepard have finally secured a safe resting place for their son. On October 26, Matthew Shepard’s remains will be buried in a secluded niche of the Washington National Cathedral, known as the “spiritual home of the nation.”
The towering Gothic cathedral is the official seat of the Episcopal Church, making it a fitting place for Shepard to be laid to rest; he was active in the Episcopal Church, serving as an acolyte as a child, and his parents told Boorstein that he “loved” the church community. The Washington National Cathedral also regularly hosts memorial services for notable individuals. Some 200 people have been buried there, among them Woodrow Wilson, George Dewey, and Helen Keller.
“I think that with Matt’s sense of occasion and drama, he would have found [being interred in the cathedral] tremendously gratifying and very cool,” James Marsden, a friend of Shepard who is now the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, tells Jacey Fortin of the New York Times.
Shepard was a 21-year-old college student at the University of Wyoming when he was kidnapped by two men, brutally beaten with a pistol and robbed. Then the perpetrators, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, tied Shepard to a fence and left him in a remote area outside of Laramie, Wyoming. He hung there, cold and bleeding, for 18 hours until he was discovered by a cyclist who initially thought he was a scarecrow. Shepard died in a hospital several days later, on October 12, 1998.
The crime was in part motivated by Shepard’s sexual orientation. McKinney’s girlfriend told reporters at the time that McKinney and Henderson had wanted to “teach [Shepard] a lesson.”
Horrified by Shepard’s death, people across the country staged protests and held vigils. Over the decades, Shepard has endured as a symbol of the terrible reality of violent hate crimes against LGBTQ people. He has been the subject of books, a documentary and one of the most-performed plays in recent years. His name is on a 2009 law that expanded federal hate crime laws to include acts of violence against gay individuals.
And yet, in spite of recent gains made for LGBTQ rights, the community continues to be threatened by violent crime, reports Julie Compton of NBC News. In 2017, the Anti Violence Project tracked 52 hate-related homicides against LGBTQ people, an 86 percent increase from 2016.
“A lot has changed in the 20 years since Matthew was abducted, tied to a fence and left to die,” Mariann Edgar Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, tells Fortin of the Times. “A lot has changed, but not everything has changed. It felt really important for us to say that we believe LGBTQ people are beloved children of God, not in spite of their identities but because of who they are — who God created them to be.”
Bishop Budde will preside over Shepard’s burial on October 26, alongside Reverend V. Gene Robinson, who became the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop in 2003. Shepard’s remains will be interred in a private area of the cathedral, and will not be accessible to the public. But the cathedral is considering installing a plaque in Shepard’s memory, and Dennis Shepard says that he hopes people from around the world will come to visit his son.
“It’s a place where there’s an actual chance for others to sit and reflect about Matthew,” he tells Fortin, “and about themselves, and about their friends."