My life has changed in countless ways since Matt died, and I know it will never be the same. And though it might sound strange, I owe him so much for those changes. I’ve spent the last 10 years doing what I can to make the world around me a safer and more welcoming place for everyone. I volunteer more in my community and have done some traveling, talking to people about hate and violence. I recently changed jobs…and careers, now working in the Office of Diversity and Employment Practices. I’m working to make my passion my profession. But the impact on me and my life goes much deeper than how I earn a paycheck.
It hasn’t been easy, by any means. Many people hear the words “Matthew Shepard” and think of him as an event; I think of my friend who’s no longer here, and how much it hurts that he’s gone. I miss seeing his incredible beaming smile, the one that came not just from his mouth, but from the sparkle in his eyes and from deep within his heart. I can’t find words to describe the pain of losing someone to such violence. Working through the loss and grief in the public eye has also been a struggle at times, though I think it has made me live more honestly and openly. I speak more from my heart, and those around me probably know me better.
I value those around me more, and try to be more deliberate in letting them know it. I only had the honor of knowing Matt for a few short months before he was killed. I was planning Gay Awareness Week during that time, and kept telling myself that I would make a point of getting to know him more in depth afterwards. One of my greatest regrets is not taking that time from the start. He was worth that, and so much more. I view everyone as worth it these days, or at least try to. When I think of Matt, I call or email someone I haven’t spoken with in a while, and know my life is all the richer for it.
I try to view others as people first. I learned that from Matt, I think. He didn’t look at someone and see them as black, or Jewish, or disabled. He saw them as a person first and foremost; the rest was just insignificant differences, since we have much more in common than anything that separates or divides us. He used to strike up conversations with strangers, homeless folks, or anyone he found interesting or compelling. I think he liked learning about people, and valued their experiences in a way most of us don’t. He taught me something about the value of humanity and how we’re all connected. I suppose he taught me to give everyone the dignity and respect they deserve as a human being.
I’ve also seen the power we as individuals have to change the world around us. Romaine and I created and organized Angel Action in response to Fred Phelps’ presence in Laramie. We didn’t want his messages of hate and intolerance to go unanswered or to be what our friends and family saw on the news before they went to bed. The people of Wyoming and America deserved better than that, and Matt would have been the first to say so. We didn’t plan to become part of a play, an HBO movie, or a media storm. We just wanted to do something to combat hate, but in a peaceful and loving way. We didn’t want to sink to the level of Phelps and his group.
Perhaps most importantly, Matt’s murder taught me how important it is to stand up for those who can’t. To speak out for those who have been silenced through fear or through violence. Matt wanted to spend his life doing something to make the world a better place. He wanted to help others and make a difference in someone’s life. He can’t do that now, and so I and many others have to do it for him. I feel an obligation to carry on his dreams and work toward his goals. Someone has to be his voice, and to share his light and love with the world he’s left far too soon.
Yes, I owe Matt so much for the lessons he taught me, both in life and in his death. For the changes he’s brought about in my life, in Wyoming, and in the hearts and minds of people across the country and around the globe. Perhaps I’ve repaid that debt to him in some fashion. But I still keep telling people about him. About his murder. About hate and violence. I keep “fighting the good fight.” I do it because Matt also taught me I’m responsible for those around me, that if I stay silent or inactive I’m no better than those who killed him. I don’t want another parent to know the pain Dennis and Judy feel. I don’t want another community to be scarred by the manifestation of ignorance and fear. I do it for Matt. For his smile. For his heart. I do it to change the world the way he changed me. Hopefully that change won’t require more loss and sacrifice. Please think of Matt today, and help me build a world he’d be proud of.