Who was Matthew Shepard?
Everyone recognizes the name: the murdered gay college student immortalized in a federal anti-hate crime law signed by President Obama. But while everyone knows about Shepard’s death, comparably few people know much about his life. Now two different accounts—a documentary by a high school friend and a controversial book by a New York writer—present new insights on and speculations about the man who fifteen years ago this month became a tragic archetype for gay rights, the man whose father once dubbed him “The Bad Karma Kid”—someone whom misfortune seemed to go out of its way to find.
-“Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.”
Michele Josue, originally from Maryland, now living in LA, met Shepard at a boarding school in Switzerland, where Shepard was sent to study after his family moved to Saudi Arabia and where Josue landed on account of her mother’s job at the International Monetary Fund. They read opposite each other in an audition for a production of “Dancing at Lughnasa.”
“Neither of us got the parts,” Josue says, but the two hit it off anyway. Shepard loved theater, and the pair costarred in several productions. Josue recalls surprising him on one show by smearing lotion on her palms before a sober scene that required them to clap hands. “Matt was stone cold,” she said, “he never broke character.” He blew up when they got backstage, but forgave her in short order.
When the story of Shepard’s murder broke, Josue was 19 and living in Boston. Already an aspiring filmmaker, she laid the first tentative plans for a documentary about Shepard’s life then, though it took a decade and a half to materialize. “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine,” a 90-minute film recording Shepard’s life, financed entirely through private contributions, premieres simultaneously at the Mill Valley Film Festival in the San Francisco Bay Area and at the Washington National Cathedral October 4.
In the film, Josue reminisces with Shepard’s family and friends, visits locales important to his life, and, in one potent scene, cries while interviewing the minister who worked with his killers. “The movie took a toll, but it’s what we signed up for,” Josue says. “When I was in private I cried it all out with my friends or my husband. And I did a lot of calisthenics and boxing in the mornings—a little therapeutic boxing never hurt anyone.” “¨
“Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” offers an affectionate and endearing look at Shepard’s life, but it’s also a portrait of a sometimes troubled young man, a sexual assault survivor prone to melancholy and anxiety. “People would be surprised to learn how flawed and complex Matt was,” Josue says. “He was so wide open and loving, but he struggled on and off with depression.” Rather than shy away from it, Josue says that troubled side did Shepard credit on account of how hard he worked to move past it.
-”The Book of Matt”
New York-based writer and television producer Stephen Jimenez never met Matt Shepard. His new book, “The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard,” is the product not of personal experience with the victim but of over a decade (he started “way back in the 20th century,” as he puts it) of talking to Laramie, Wyoming locals, looking up people from Shepard’s past, and perusing formerly sealed records.
“If I’d known how long it would take I might not have started,” Jimenez jokes, “but this story interested me because it points to things in the culture about tabloid media and the politicization of news.” Jimenez contends that the Shepard murder was not a hate crime but rather a drug deal gone awry, and he says that the beatific image of Shepard is unrealistic. “He was idealistic, he’d studied several languages, he was a very bright young man,” Jimenez says. “But he was also very troubled.”
On top of depression and anxiety, Jimenez says Shepard suffered alcohol and drug addiction, that he was HIV positive (a revelation first found in the pages of “Vanity Fair” and corroborated by Shepard’s mother), and that he may have been mixed up with male prostitutes and “straight hustlers.” In short, it’s a laundry list of things that the gay male community want to disassociate from.
“I was a part of the 70s gay club and bar scene,” Jimenez says. “The AIDS epidemic created a kind of post-traumatic stress and a very violent, defensive reaction to these things. Coming from that era, I’ve been very sensitive about that too. People warned me I’d be feeding anti-gay bias, but I think the last 15 years have made us ready to deal with these complexities.” The book is not about smearing Shepard, Jimenez says, but about correcting what he alleges is a faulty view of the case around the murder.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation, founded by Shepard’s family, accused Jimenez of using “untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumors and innuendo” ahead of the book’s publication. Michele Josue told 429Magazine she has not read the book but considers it suspect and denies that Shepard ever had a drug problem. Jimenez points out that no one’s friends or family know everything about that person’s life (particularly their college days) and says his most important sources are public records and officials. He invites readers to judge the material themselves.
“You don’t want a story like this to be authorized by family or cops, you want to be independent. And I’m glad people are debating this in a public way. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book.”
In a 2004 interview, Matthew Shepard Foundation executive director Jason Marsden commented on the reductive views of Shepard’s life and death: “It’s offensive to see the truth boiled down so much that it’s not longer the truth.” Both Josue’s film and Jimenez’s book, though often at odds with their accounts, are both predicated on that sentiment. Matt Shepard was not a friend of most of ours, but we should all want to know who he really was.