Matthew Shepard: His legacy continues

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a guest column by Cathy Renna, a longtime media activist and communications expert on LGBTQ issues. She is currently a Senior Vice President at Target Cue. You can find her on twitter @cathyrenna

Even after sixteen years, the name and story of Matthew Shepard, carved into American history and whose murder represented a watershed moment that forever changed the conversation about the LGBT experience, not only still resonates but also continues to have impact.

As an advocate working for GLAAD in 1998, my story and connection to Matt’s death is well documented, most recently in a TedX talk at Claremont College. The memories and lessons of all I have ever done related to Matt’s death and any subsequent work related to hate crimes and so many other issues inform, inspire and motivate me every day. Legacy.

My experience changed me forever and carries with it a deep responsibility to continue to tell the stories of LGBT people. October is forever bittersweet for me, celebrating National Coming Out Day with both pride and memories of being in Laramie with Matt’s friends, fellow students and community advocates mourning his death. Not only bearing witness to moments that were shared around the world by media but knowing that in the best way we could we tried to ensure that the media coverage was as fair and accurate as possible. Legacy.

As Dennis Shepard said at Russell Henderson’s plea bargain hearing (Henderson is one of Matt’s killers, now spending the remainder of his life in prison), “good is coming from evil.” And after sixteen years that good continues.  Yes, his murder sparked a national conversation not only about hate crimes and LGBT lives in general. Yes, it began a process where our experience as LGBT people suddenly had more context as it followed the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres in 1997, making the late 90’s a very influential time for cultural visibility LGBT people. In October 2009, I stood feet away from President Obama at a reception following the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Legacy.

And in 2014 we have only seen Matt’s legacy expand in scope and grow in influence. The Matthew Shepard Foundation’s work has gone international, with Matt’s parents Dennis and Judy traveling the world with a message to “erase hate” and promote human rights for all. The Foundation’s work with young people is some of the most sophisticated and youth based LGBT work being done. The Laramie Project and its epilogue, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, continues to be one of the most performed plays in America and has sparked an amazing online community, The recent release of “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” gives us an entirely new way to see and know Matt, beyond the headlines and in the voices of Matt’s friends and family. When I saw it, I was struck to my core to see video of Matt and the chronicling of his life prior to 1998. Hearing the voice of this young man who changed my life without ever knowing him.

Another thing Dennis Shepard said to Russell Henderson directly at that hearing in 1999 most of us in tears as we watched a father bare his soul with compassion and anger, was this: “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy……Mr. McKinney, I’m going to grant you life, as hard as that is for me to do, because of Matthew. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, or the Fourth of July, remember that Matt isn’t. Every time that you wake up in that prison cell, remember that you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night…..Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”

I am not sure about Henderson, but I know I thank Matt - and his family - every day. For very different reasons. We all should. That is his legacy and it is one that will continue forever.

This piece was also published on The Huffington Post.