GLAAD at 25: Sharing Matt Shepard's Story
This week, GLAAD will celebrate 25 years of amplifying LGBT voices. As part of that celebration, GLAAD Blog will revisit some of GLAAD’s culture-changing work as told by former and current staff members and volunteers.
Below, former GLAAD National News Media Director, Cathy Renna, remembers GLAAD's work in Laramie, Wyoming to help share the story of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten to death in an anti-gay hate crime.
By Cathy Renna, former National News Media Director at GLAAD
It is hard to believe that GLAAD is a quarter century old. I spent nearly 14 years as part of the organization and have been thinking about the changes GLAAD has been responsible for in making our community visible, especially since our community is not often in the history books that LGBTQ kids are reading in school. I also am very mindful of how GLAAD was the place I “grew up,” as a person and as and activist.
As I think back on my personal history with GLAAD, a few images stick out in my mind. Going back to 1990 (not really that long ago, right?) I was volunteering with the then Washington, DC chapter of GLAAD. We were lucky to have an office space, phone, faxes, and a handful of people willing to do the work. Back then, the Washington Post wasn’t exactly jumping at our phone calls and our activism was nearly all reactive, in your face and uphill. We sold lemonade at Pride, collected donations a dollar at a time in front of the local gay bookstore and never would have dreamed GLAAD would become a national, multi-million dollar organization. But here we are.
Former GLAAD National News Media Director Cathy Renna speaks at a press conference the morning of Matt's death
Of all the work I did while at GLAAD, it was aftermath of the murder of Matthew Shepard that continues to stay with me in spirit and still deeply informs my actions every day as an activist, a lesbian and a parent. Despite the loss of this young man at such an early age, he has been a teacher to us all and his legacy is much larger than anyone could have imagined.
We all have moments that are indelibly etched into our memory. The days in early October 1998 hold many of those for me. Shortly after Matthew’s body was discovered and the media began reporting it as a possible hate crime, I found myself on the phone with Jim Osborn, the then-President of the LGBTQ group on campus at the University of Wyoming. He was surrounded by a growing media circus and I asked Jim a simple question: what can GLAAD do for you? His answer was also simple: “get on an f-ing plane.” My next call was to then-Executive Director Joan Garry, asking her approval to spend what was at the time a LOT of money for me to go to Laramie. Hours later I was on a plane.
It is impossible to document all the work GLAAD did related to Matt’s murder, but some of the most important pieces still resonate today. Whether is was working with the students to tell their stories and talk to the media in a safe and comfortable way, being a key resource to journalists and putting Matt’s death in context, working with local communities around the country to help them get media coverage of how hates crimes have affected their communities, being an integral part of the Laramie Project’s success and working with Matthew’s amazing family, who have continued his legacy through the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation are just some.
I’ll end with two brief stories that exemplify why we see Matt’s murder continue to resonate in the media and in our community.
The first time I met Judy Shepard was in New York, the day of the 1999 GLAAD awards. I was nervous but after 2 minutes realized I was in the presence of one of the most genuine and loving people I would ever meet. Over lunch, we talked a lot about why Matt’s murder got so much attention and others did not, a topic I speak about to this day, but it was the moment when she said “I want to do something to make a difference while I have this small window of opportunity” that made me pause. In my mind I was thinking “Small window? How about Bay window,” but in that moment I realized she was has no idea the journey she was about to go on. Later that evening, when she took to the stage to accept an award for the Casper Star-Tribune, over a thousand people rose to their feet in unison and in an instant I think she realized what I meant when I said that the window was not small, not if she didn’t want it to be. Last year, I was proud to stand in the White House as President Obama thanked Judy, Dennis and Logan for their sacrifice and on-going work.
Finally, while sitting in the University of Wyoming student union in 1999 (during the trial of Aaron McKinney) I was approached by a young man and woman who were definitely not from Wyoming. They were from New York and they found me to ask for help because they wanted to “make a play” about Matt’s death. At first I thought they we nuts, but of course we all know that the Laramie Project – and now the Epilogue – would become one of the most impactful things to come out of Matt’s death. Performed around the world thousands of times, in big cities, small towns and high school and community theaters, it has changed the hearts, minds and in many cases the lives of those who are onstage and in the audience.
Today, I am blessed to have an amazing wife, a beautiful daughter, a successful public interest PR firm that focuses on LGBT issues (you can take the girl out of GLAAD, but not the GLAAD out of this girl) and sit on the boards of Tectonic Theater Project and the Matthew Shepard Foundation. As a perpetual tomboy and pretty shy kid, I would have never dreamed of a life like this and I have GLAAD to thank for so much of what I have learned and experienced.