Friday, October 03, 2014

"Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine" documents the life of Matthew, after a horrible crime against him in Wyoming in 1998

Tonight, HRC (Human Rights Campaign) in Washington aired the film “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine”, by Michele Josue. The film is a biography of Matthew Shepard, who was attacked and kidnapped by two men he met in a bar in Laramie Wyoming, and beaten and left for dead at a fencepost near Laramie Wyoming in October 1998.  His death would become the subject of the play “The Laramie Project” by Moises Kaufman (Drama blog, Dec. 17, 2010). 
About the first two-thirds of the film (89 minutes) chronicles Matthew’s boyhood and teen years, including living in Saudi Arabia where his father worked, going to boarding school in Switzerland, then having some issues finding himself in college in North Carolina and Denver, before returning to college in Laramie at the University of Wyoming.  (He had been born in Casper.) 
Matthew was shorter and slighter in build than average, weighing 110 pounds.  He had told his father he was gay in his teen years. He had aspired to become an actor and evidence suggests he would have done well at this as an adult.  He could deal with his own personal issues by acting other characters in plays and probably later movies. The film emphasizes little details, like showing his handwritten letters, with awkward cursive penmanship. 
The last third of the documentary accounts the gruesome crime, and the trial, and the willingness of the parents not to seek the death penalty for Aaron McKinney, who received two consecutive life sentences without parole. Russell Henderson received two consecutive life sentences after pleading guilty. 

The film does show the protests from Westboro Baptist Church at Shepard’s funeral, and depicts amazing hate mail received by attorneys. 
The incident helped set up the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.  His younger brother would eventually help run the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

I was living in Minneapolis at the time and I do recall an observance in Loring Park.  I have driven through Laramie once, on a Sunday morning in 1994, after spending the night in Cheyenne.  The day before, the second day of a vacation in Colorado and Wyoming, I had resolved to write my first DADT book.  I believe I drove the rent car through an area about ten miles from the site of the murder.

The official site is here. The film has been shown in film festivals in Cleveland and Minneapolis. 
I tend to process this crime as a kind of domestic terrorism, from the extreme right or “white supremacist” areas, targeted at an individual.  It would seem comparable to the crimes against blacks described in Gode Davis’s film “American Lynching”, not yet completed.  Yet there is still an aspect to homophobic hate crimes, as I can detect from statements made to me by others at various points earlier in my life.  One roommate in 1961 effectively said he feared becoming impotent if he continued rooming with a homosexual (me).  In 1966, when I was in grad school in Kansas, another roommate bragged about “rolling” homosexuals in Kansas City by tempting them and then using a lead pipe.  Was he making this up to show the contempt of the times?
I think that “homophobia” against gay men has the component of resentment against those who don’t accept the same “challenges” of complementarity that seem, in their eyes, to be expected of everyone.  I think that sometimes this sort of crime is related to a feeling of having been “cheated”.
The priest, who spoke to at least one of the defendants, reports some remorse late in the film. 
At this point in my own life, I could never accept the idea of being a “victim”.  A “casualty” might be the more appropriate word.  If something like this happens to me, I am "paying" for the crime as much as the perpetrator, even though he is brought to justice.   But that’s another discussion.
There have been other films about Matthew Shepard, including “Anatomy of a Hate Crime” (2001), where Cy Carter plays Matthew Shepard, and then NBC’s “The Matthew Shepard Story” (2002).
Wikipedia attribution link for picture of the Ames Monument, north of Laramie, which I passed in 1994.  

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