Published Feb 20, 2015The 1998 murder of Wyoming university student Matthew Shepard — robbed and beaten into a coma by two locals for being gay (he later passed away in hospital) — spurred a sense of outrage that exploded across the world and brought the term "hate crime" into the popular lexicon. Celebrities like Melissa Etheridge and Ellen DeGeneres spoke eloquently on Shepard's behalf. Elton John wrote a song about him. There was a hugely successful play (and later, a film) inspired by Shepard's story called The Laramie Project. And most pertinently, after years of hard-fought entreaties to the U.S. government, the death of Matthew Shepard helped change the law. In 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act, expanding the definition of hate crime to crimes motivated by a victim's perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
As Shepard's face became synonymous with gay rights activism and as the years wore onward, one of his friends worried that Shepard's own memory — as a person, not an emblem — was being lost in the fray. Michele Josue was a 19-year-old film student when her friend was murdered, and her documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine tells the story of Shepard's life in a distinctly intimate way.
The film begins with Josue, Shepard's mother and several of his friends pulling a box of his stuff out of storage and sorting through its contents. The box, like the documentary itself, contains the puzzle pieces of Shepard's life. Through anecdotes, interviews and old photos, Josue assembles a more complete picture of a person who was deeply loyal and caring with his loved ones but also wrestled constantly with his sense of identity and self-worth. "I am funny and messy and lazy," reads one note from the box. "I am giving and understanding. I am sensitive, I am honest, I am sincere. I love eating. I love hugs."
The film traces Shepard's entire life, from his childhood in Wyoming to school in Switzerland to a period of wandering in Denver and his final home as a first-year political science student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. It gives as much weight to the happy moments in Shepard's life as it can, while still keeping its tragic ending in mind. There's a lovely moment that hints at Shepard's immense charm when one of his female friends reads his coming-out letter: "I'm gay… If I weren't, I would have wanted to spend the rest of my life with you." The movie glitters with these small, sweet moments that speak volumes about the kind of person Shepard was.
The movie also doesn't shy away from the traumatic moments in Shepard's life, including a violent experience on a school trip to Morocco that one friend recalls irrevocably altering his personality, causing depression and frequent panic attacks. No doubt it also contributed to Shepard's wandering nature and his fervent desire to find a safe community. "I want a home, a place to call my own," reads another letter. It's heartbreaking to contemplate that the town that eventually became Shepard's adopted home would also be the setting of his demise. Still, Matt Shepard Was a Friend of Mine has infinite value as a tribute to a sweet and complicated person who dealt with flaws, failures and triumphs just as the rest of us do. It's a stirring paean to a life amplified by a tragic event — a generous life well lived and full of love.