Next month I’ll be taking a vacation to visit friends in Boulder, Colorado. I’m excited to be seeing the area, as I’ve only just changed planes in the airport before and never actually visited.
But as I researched my trip, I couldn’t help but notice that Laramie, Wyoming, is just a two-hour drive north of where I’ll be.
Seeing the town where Matthew Shepard was fatally attacked, even if just by driving through, feels a bit too real for me still, but it’s something I’d very much like to do. I’m not afraid for my safety, or worried I’ll see any kind of hatred on a brief drive through town, but knowing what once happened there compels me to honor Matthew by visiting.
I’m just a year older than Matt, so I’d only just come out of the closet in 1997, the year before his murder. I still hadn’t told my dad—never did—and being open about my sexuality was still very new to me in many ways. 1997 was the year I came out, the year Ellen DeGeneres came out on her show and in real life, and the year the movie In & Out came out too. Everything felt new, reborn, like a better world for GLBT people was just on the horizon.
And then in 1998, we lost Matthew.
Here I was, a 23-year-old college graduate, just starting my life really, and finally being true to who God made me to be, and I kept hearing about this 21-year-old boy who was badly beaten out in Wyoming. “Well, that’s Wyoming,” I probably thought—”that kind of thing won’t happen to me in New York.”
But the location of the crime really meant nothing.
He was young, like me. Gay, like me. Just starting out, just figuring things out, just learning more and more about what being gay was all about. This better world we were all hoping for…still wasn’t. Matthew Shepard was pronounced dead on October 12, 1998.
My connections to Matthew are few, really, but very meaningful to me. On December 1, 2001, which would have been Matt’s 25th birthday, I met my partner for the first time. Like Matt, Andy was born in 1976, and like Matt, his middle name is Wayne. But besides following Matt’s story through the years, reading his mom’s book, The Meaning of Matthew, and crying my way through productions of The Laramie Project, I didn’t feel like I’d done enough to honor Matthew and his legacy.
So in 2013 and 2014, I self-published my first two books in a three-book series, all about Heaven revealing itself to Earth. Past the pearly gates and through the streets of Heaven, down at the other end of the Hall of Harmony, you’ll find the place where The Ethereal Council meets. The 37 angels comprising this sacred council are charged with all the important business matters of Heaven. And one of the 37 is a young man with soft blonde hair…named Matthew.
He’s just a small character in my stories, but I love him so much.
I can’t rewrite the life Matthew had on Earth, and I can’t add years to his story here, but the least I can do is honor his soul in a small way through my fiction.
This was a boy who changed the world simply by being a victim of horrible hate. Matt didn’t choose his cross, but the cross was no less painful for him, and certainly no less meaningful for all of us who will never forget him. So next month on my trip out that way, I plan to honor Matthew with my pilgrimage, if only just to be there and remember, to send my blessings and love out into the wind.
Matthew Shepard’s body died one day 16 years ago, but his spirit was never, ever reachable by any dark acts by any troubled souls. The part of Matthew that glowed with joy and love was never harmed, never struck, and never killed, because his soul was untouchable.
The story of our suffering is never about our hours on the cross, but about the resurrection that follows.
And the pilgrimage of our sadness is never about the pain itself, but about the absolute promise of an eternal life to come.
Photo via flickr user Rob Lee