Matthew Wayne Shepard never quite made it to his 22nd birthday. A student at the University of Wyoming, born on Dec. 1, 1976, he was brutally beaten on Oct. 7, 1998, near Laramie, Wyo. He died five days later at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., as a result of those injuries. His murderers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, are now serving life sentences in state prison. The reason for the attack that cost Matthew his life was simply that he was gay.
As we approach the eighth anniversary of Matthew's death, we would do well to recall the memory of this young man's life and the values that shaped it. We should also consider what those principles mean for us today.
Matthew Shepard was a gentle person whose life reflected the gospel law of love of neighbor. His father, Dennis Shepard, tells us that his son trusted and believed in the goodness of people. He could never understand how people could hurt one another either verbally or physically. Matthew was known as a reconciler. He had a unique ability to bring people together to discuss and resolve their differences. His mothe,r Judy Shepard, recounts how Matthew believed that pre-judging people only shatters the opportunities to come to know and appreciate others as persons. She therefore established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to continue this legacy of tolerance exhibited by her son.
Matthew's example is a particular challenge to all of us in the Catholic community at this time. The polarization between the institutional church and the GLBT community is more pronounced than ever. This division often expresses itself in pejorative language that crowds out dialogue and fuels the fires of anger and hate. Each side has its own vocabulary of intolerance. The anniversary of Matthew Shepard's murder reminds us that hateful rhetoric can lead to violence and even death.
The Rainbow Sash Movement joins the many other people of goodwill who believe that we should renounce any demeaning and intolerant speech toward our fellow human beings, no matter what their orientation, gender, religion, race, ethnicity or class is. Terms such as 'homophobic,' 'fundamentalist,' 'morally disordered,' 'gravely sinful' and 'reactionary' only slam the door shut on respectful dialogue. Such loaded phrases only prove that we have already judged one another, losing that opportunity Matthew believed could bring us to know each other as human beings. We shudder to think how such language has led some to hurt others emotionally and physically. Did such speech give license to those men who attacked and killed Matthew Shepard?
There is no better way to honor the memory of Matthew Shepard than for both sides in the church's debate on sexuality to mute the angry rhetoric and judgemental language. Such tones only satisfy the more radical fringe in both camps and prevent more rational and charitable people to be heard. We in the Rainbow Sash Movement, like Matthew Shepard, believe that most people on either side the issues that affect the GLBT community have goodwill in their hearts. If we in the Catholic community can take the lead in clearing the atmosphere of prejudice, exclusion and negativity, then a respectful and frank dialogue will occur.
We long to establish a common ground where we can come to appreciate our common humanity in love. This would be the most fitting and lasting memorial to the life, death and enduring values of Matthew Wayne Shepard.
Joe Murray, U.S. Convener
Rainbow Sash Movement