Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Matthew Shepard: Modern gay martyr and hate-crime victim

Matthew Shepard brought international attention to anti-gay hate crimes when he died on Oct. 12, 1998. He was a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming at the time.

Shepard (1976-1998) was brutally attacked near Laramie, Wyoming, on Oct. 6-7, 1998 by two men who later claimed that they were driven temporarily insane by “gay panic” due to Shepard’s alleged sexual advances. Shepard was beaten and left to die.

Now the Matthew Shepard Foundation seeks to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance. U.S. President Obama signed "The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act" into law on Oct. 28, 2009. It broadens the federal hate-crimes law to cover violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Matthew Shepard” by Tobias Haller

Shepard has become a cultural icon, inspiring dozens and dozens of paintings, films, plays, songs and other artistic works -- with more still being created every year. Among the new images is a sweet portrait of him with a rainbow halo by Tobias Haller, an iconographer, author, composer, and vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx. He is the author of “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his spouse were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.

Shepard’s martyrdom gives him the aura of a Christ figure. His torturous death evokes the Good Shepherd who was crucified. The officer who found Shepard said that he was covered with blood -- except for the white streaks left by his tears. Based on this report, Father William Hart McNichols created the striking icon at the top of this post. McNichols dedicated his icon The Passion of Matthew Shepard to the 1,470 gay and lesbian youth of commit suicide in the U.S. each year, and to the countless others who are injured or murdered.

McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Catholic priest who has been rebuked by church leaders for making icons of saints not approved by the church, including one of Matthew Shepard. McNichols’ own moving spiritual journey and two of his icons are included in the book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More by Kittredge Cherry. His Matthew Shepard icon appears in his book “Christ All Merciful,” which he co-authored with Megan McKenna.

Another new project inspired by Shepard is “Matthew Shepard Meets Coyote,” a play that blends Christianity, queer experience and Native American folklore. In the final moments of Shepard’s life he encounters Coyote, the trickster god of the American West, who urges him to move beyond the cruel tricks that life has played on him. It was written by Harry Cronin, a priest of Holy Cross and professor in residence at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. In 2014 it was performed at the San Francisco Fringe Festival and at Bay Area churches as a way to spark dialogue. Cronin currently writes plays about redemption in alcoholic and queer experiences.

Several works were released in 2013 for the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s death.  They include the musical tribute “Beyond the Fence,” the film “Matt Shepard was a Friend of Mine” and the book “The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard.”

"Matthew Shepard: Beyond the Fence," a musical tribute celebrating a life that helped change the world, premiered in October 2013 in a production by the South Coast Singers, a LGBTQ performance troupe in Long Beach, California. Written by SCC creative director Steve Davison, it incorporates existing music by gay composers Levi Kreis, Ryan Amador and Randi Driscoll. Videos from “Beyond the Fence” are posted on YouTube, including the poignant song “Hello,” sung by Julian Comeau.

The documentary film “Matt Shepard was a Friend of Mine” is directed by Michele Josue, who indeed was a close friend of Shepard. She takes a personal approach, exploring his life and loss by visiting places that were important to him and interviewing his friends and family. View the trailer below or at this link.

Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine: Teaser #2 from Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine on Vimeo.

Award-winning gay Journalist Stephen Jimenez does extensive research into the circumstances of the crime in “The Book of Matt.” He finds that Shepard was not killed for being gay, but for reasons far more complicated.

Other books about Shepard include “The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie” and “A World Transformed” by his mother (Judy Shepard) and “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard” by Lesléa Newman, a novel in verse about the murder.

“Saint Sebastian and Matt Shepard Juxtaposed” by JR Leveroni

“Saint Sebastian and Matt Shepard Juxtaposed” by JR Leveroni is a painting that makes an important connection between a gay Christian martyr from history and the gay victims of hate crimes today. Leveroni is an emerging visual artist living in South Florida. Painting in a Cubist style, he matches Shepard’s death with the killing of another gay martyr, Saint Sebastian. The suffering is expressed in a subdued style with barely a trace of blood. A variety of male nudes and religious paintings can be seen on his website (warning: male nudity).

“The Murder of Matthew Shepard” by Matthew Wettlaufer

The grim scene of Matthew’s death is vividly portrayed in “The Murder of Matthew Shepard,” above, by gay artist-philosopher Matthew Wettlaufer. He lived in El Salvador and South Africa before returning to California. For an interview with Wettlaufer and more of his art, see my previous post “New paintings honor gay martyrs.”

“The Last of Laramie” by Stephen Mead
Above is a lyrical painting dedicated to Matthew Shepard: “The Last of Laramie” by gay artist Stephen Mead.of New York. It appears in his book “Our Book of Common Faith.” For more about Mead and his art, see my previous post “Gay Artist Links Body and Spirit.”

"The Candlelight Vigil for Matthew Shepard (NYC Oct. 19, 1998)” by Sandow Birk

California artist Sandow Birk painted a candlelight vigil for Shepard. With a drummer and a rainbow flag, it seems to echo “The Spirit of 76,” a famous patriotic painting of Revolutionary War figures by Archibald MacNeal Willard. But it is based on the 1889 painting (“The Conscripts” by Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, a work that takes a hard look at the toll of war, especially the conscription of young people into the military during the Franco-Prussian War.

For more about Sandow Birk’s art, see my previous post Stonewall's LGBT history painted: Interview with Sandow Birk.

The play “The Laramie Project” by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project has been performed all over the world since it premiered in 1998. Many American performances were picketed by Westboro Baptist Church members, who appear in the play picketing Shepard’s funeral as they did in real life. “The Laramie Project” draws on hundreds of interviews with residents of Laramie conducted by the theater company. A film version of The Laramie Project was released in 2002.

Matthew’s story has also been dramatized in biopic movies such as “The Matthew Shepard Story” with Sam Waterson and Stockard Channing as the grieving parents.

More than a 30 songs inspired by Matthew Shepard are listed in “Cultural Depictions of Matthew Shepard” at Wikipedia. They come from a variety of singers, including Melissa Etheridge, Janis Ian, and Elton John.

The Altar Cross of LGBTQ Martyrs from Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco

The Altar Cross of LGBTQ Martyrs from Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco features photos of Matthew Shepard, Harvey Milk, Gwen Araujo and others. In the center of the cross is the fence where Shepard was tortured and murdered in Laramie, Wyoming.

The tendency to acclaim Shepard as a martyr is analyzed in a scholarly paper that won the 2014-15 LGBT Religious History Award from the LGBT Religious Archives Network. “The Martyrdom of Matthew Shepard” was written by Brett Krutzsch, religion professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio. It is an excerpt from his Ph.D dissertation, “Martyrdom and American Gay History: Secular Advocacy, Christian Ideas, and Gay Assimilation,” which examines how religious rhetoric and gay martyr discourses facilitated American gay assimilation from the 1970s through 2014. He finds that secular gay advocates invoked Shepard as a gay martyr, using Christian ideas to present gay Americans as similar to the dominant culture. He questions the politics of martyrdom and analyzes why the deaths of a few white, middle-class, gay men have been mourned as national tragedies.

The award announcement explains: “The paper argues that Shepard’s appeal was connected to constructions of him as Christ-like and as an upstanding young, Christian man. His posthumous notoriety reveals a historical moment when Christian ideas significantly shaped arguments for American gay social integration. In turn, Matthew Shepard became an icon of the apparently ideal late twentieth-century gay citizen: a white, nonsexual, practicing Protestant.”

Related links:
Cultural Depictions of Matthew Shepard (Wikipedia)

Top image credit: “The Passion of Matthew Shepard” by William Hart McNichols

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, heroes and holy people of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

1 comment:

thegayte-keeper said...

His story still gets me!