EVERY SOCIAL MOVEMENT is defined by and remembered for its watershed moments, fearless leaders and – most tragically – martyrs along the way. One of the defining moments of the long journey toward equality for sexual minorities was the horrific murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. Though it was far from an isolated incident, the sheer brutality of Shepard’s death made it headline news, and served as a catalyst for greater activism, awareness and outcry from the queer community and its allies. The road to equality is paved with blood, sweat and tears, the outpouring of which becomes stronger in light of such events.
In the wake of his death, Matthew Shepard became an unlikely icon. He lived a fairly ordinary life, albeit in some pretty extraordinary places (he lived abroad for many years before returning to his native Wyoming to resume his studies). He was compassionate, friendly, self-confident, nervous and flawed, just like anyone can be at times. The tragedy of his death raised his profile, making him a rallying point for people who were sick of being treated as second-class citizens and who were fed up with being persecuted and attacked for who they are.
The impact of Shepard’s death was huge, resulting in new legislation and the establishment of a foundation in his name by his mother. But even with that legacy, Matthew Shepard is no longer a household name. Few names from headlines a decade and a half ago remain as familiar now. Today’s ceaseless news cycle all but guarantees any event is only in the public consciousness for a moment before the next viral video or celebrity gossip washes it away, only to be sporadically remembered in the days, months and years to come. Older stories become increasingly buried in a pile of quickly forgotten news.
With her deeply felt documentary Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine, Michele Josue seeks to remind people of what happened to Shepard, but, more so, to restore his humanity. He’s an icon, yes. What happened to him matters. But Josue wants people to see Shepard for who he was before he became a headline. The film serves as a moving eulogy not to the tragic victim of a hate crime, but to a vibrant human being who touched many lives, and who would’ve touched many more had his life not been unfairly cut short. Shepard’s friends, family members and teachers are candid in interviews and Shepard himself gets a say in the form of various notes, letters and videos revealing a goofy, kind kid who grew into a thoughtful, caring man.
As one would expect, it’s a tough, emotional film to watch. After so many years the wounds are still fresh for those who knew Shepard, but there must be some catharsis in committing these memories to film and sharing their loved one with people who only knew him as the bloodied man tied to the fence and left for dead. Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine is as close as most of us will ever get to counting him as a friend of ours and effectively reminds us that just because the news fades from our awareness, doesn’t mean it ceases to matter, especially to those most closely touched by tragedy.