In October 1998, Matthew Wayne Shepard was abducted, tied to a split-rail fence, and left to die in a remote area of Wyoming. His death was one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in our nation’s history and became a catalyst for activists determined to stop violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. In September 2010, gay Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after discovering that his roommate had taken video of him during a sexual encounter and had shared that on the Internet. With those unnecessary deaths in mind, the Cathedral recently marked the anniversary of Shepard’s death following that brutal hate crime by hosting a weekend of events to honor and remember LGBT youth who have suffered hate-inspired bullying, discrimination, and violence.
A World Premiere Event
On Friday, October 4, the Cathedral offered the world premiere of the documentary film Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine. It is the first major work by director Michele Josue, who was a close friend of Matt’s from their time together in boarding school, as she traveled to pivotal locations in Shepard’s life, interviewed his friends and family, and gained insight into the life and loss of Matt Shepard.
Josue described the film as a labor of love—something that she had pledged to do long before she knew that she would be able to become a professional filmmaker—because the growing cult of the martyred “Matthew Shepard” over time failed to do justice to her fallen, funny, extraordinarily gifted friend “Matt.” That Josue succeeded in capturing the full story was evident from the thunderous applause that filled the nave during numerous standing ovations following the film premiere. But perhaps the highest praise came from Judy Shepard, Matt’s mother in a post-screening discussion with Josue and Dean Hall: “The film reminded me of all the reasons I loved my son as well as some of the things that really aggravated me about him as well,” she said, to chuckles from the audience.
Examining Homophobia and Heterosexism
On Sunday, October 6, Dean Hall hosted a forum featuring Judy Shepard and Jane Clementi, as well as LGBT youth activist Joshua Deese of the Trevor Project, to discuss the Shepard and Clementi legacies, the work of their organizations, and the way that people of faith can stand against violence to LGBT young people. The forum provided a special time for the Cathedral community to hear from Jane Clementi, whose son’s tragic death inspired his parents to start the Tyler Clementi Foundation.
After the loss of her son, Clementi observed, she learned that “LGBT youth are three to seven times more likely to have suicide attempts, which was startling to us, compared to their straight peers. I feel that the church has a really strong implication in that statement,” she went on to say.
“I believe that we need to create safe spaces in all places but mostly within our faith communities. We really need to stop making people feel that they’re broken, or worthless, or separated from God in any way. We need to stop telling people that homosexuality is a sin: that’s my personal strongest message.”
In part because of his claiming an identity as a gay man, his mother thinks, Tyler Clementi had not felt able to hold on to his identity as a Christian. “He was ready to walk away from his faith, because he didn’t really feel that a Christian could be gay or that a gay person could be Christian,” she says. “It was heartbreaking to me that I was not ready to give an answer to him when he first came out … but I’ve met many great people in the last 36 months who have been able to help me understand it.”
Following the forum, there was a special service to pray for LGBT people who suffer from violence and to call people of faith to stand against anti-LGBT hatred and intolerance. In his sermon, Hall observed that he is “old enough to remember a time when Christian churches, including our own Episcopal Church, segregated its churches and actively participated in racism. I’m old enough to remember the ordination of women movement, when many in our church found ingenious theological arguments to deny women leadership roles and so promoted sexism. In its wisdom, the church came to its senses and labeled both racism and sexism as sinful. And now we find ourselves at the last barrier … Shaming people for whom they love is a sin. Shaming people because their gender identity doesn’t fit neatly into your sense of what it should be is a sin. Only when all churches say that clearly and boldly and courageously will our LGBT youth be free to grow up in a culture that totally embraces them, fully, as they are.”
This message, which received considerable attention coming from the Cathedral’s pulpit, was made even more powerful by the events of the surrounding weekend thanks to partnerships with the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Tyler Clementi Foundation, as well as sponsorship support from the law firm Ackerman Brown, the Velvet Foundation, Michael E. Hill and Dr. Michael T. McMahon, and Greg D. Kubiak and Joe Canter—along with other co-sponsoring organizations committed to the cause of LGBT equality.
The Laramie Project
A coda was offered the evening of October 10, when the Cathedral joined Ford’s Theatre for the “faith night” performance of Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, the famous play that Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Group created from a montage of interviews and press clippings following Shepard’s death. Dean Hall had been invited to be the guest speaker following the performance, which because of the federal government shutdown took place in the sanctuary of First Congregational Church in downtown Washington. Members of the Cathedral’s staff and LGBT ministry group, as well as Bishop of Washington Mariann Edgar Budde, attended.
“The play offers as its most progressive the viewpoint from certain faith leaders that ‘It’s okay to be gay if that’s who God made you to be,’” Hall noted in his post-performance discussion. “But now, 15 years later, we face the emerging consensus that it’s good to be gay. It’s good to be bisexual or transgender. I assure you that I didn’t get into the business of being a clergy person to tell you whom you can and can’t have sex with,” Hall quipped. “We now need to move the conversation forward to the ways in which we express the sexuality God gave to us: a sexuality that is good.”
In addition to noting the change in the landscape theologically over the past fifteen years, Hall also emphasized certain truths that he perceived to have remained unchanged—and in fact to be changeless: God’s presence, God’s ability to bring newness out of desolation and despair, and the ability for forgiveness to extend this creative and redeeming work. A speech by Dennis Shepard requesting a life sentence rather than the death penalty for one of his son’s killers represents one of the key places in which all three appear in the play:
[Matt] was not alone. There were his lifelong friends with him, friends he had grown up with. You’re probably wondering who these friends were. First, he had the beautiful night sky, and the same stars and moon we used to see through a telescope. Then he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him. And through it all, he was breathing in the scent of the pine trees from the Snowy Range. He heard the wind, the ever-present Wyoming wind, for the last time. He had one more friend with him. He had God. And I feel better knowing he wasn’t alone.
Thanks in part to the Cathedral’s work on behalf of LGBT youth, more young people struggling with their sexual identities will know that they—also—are not alone.