Matthew Shepard, the young gay man whose murder helped spark the movement to create hate crime laws, has finally been laid to rest after two decades.
On Friday, the 20th anniversary of his death, Matthew was interred in the crypt at the Washington National Cathedral, following a service of thanksgiving and remembrance.
Matthew was just 21-years-old when he was brutally assaulted and tortured in 1998 by two men who left him tied to a fence to die in Laramie, Wyoming.
He was still alive when he was discovered by a cyclist who at first though he was a scarecrow. In a coma and covered in blood, Matthew was taken to hospital with severe head and brain injuries.
He never recovered and passed away six days later on October 12. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were found guilty of the murder and were each sentenced to two-consecutive life sentences.
The foundation created in Matthew’s memory by his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, has played a major role in lobbying for hate crime legislation in the US.
A hate crime law signed by President Obama in 2009 was named “The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act,” honouring the memory of the young gay man as well another victim of hate violence, an African-American man who was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas.
Judy and Dennis continue to travel the world to raise awareness about LGBT equality, while their son’s life and death has been documented in documentaries and in a play.
Friday’s ceremony was held at the couple’s request. They had their son cremated after his death but held on to the urn, unsure of where they could safely place his remains without fear of desecration.
Addressing the close to 2,000 mourners, Dennis said that the LGBTQ affirming cathedral was the right place to lay his son to rest.
“It’s so important that we now have a home for Matt. A home that others can visit, a home that is safe from haters, a home that he loved dearly from his younger days in Sunday school and as an acolyte in the church back home,” said Dennis.
One of the clerics who presided over the service was the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay priest to be consecrated a bishop in the Episcopal Church.
He highlighted the harsh reality that LGBTQ people and other marginalised communities today continue to face obstacles towards equality. Robinson said that people tend to “label someone different from ourselves as ‘other’ which is code for ‘not really human’. And then you can do anything to them that you like.”
He also appeared to refer to recent efforts by President Trump’s administration to limit anti-discrimination protections for transgender Americans, stating: “There are forces about that would erase them from America, deny them the right that they have to define themselves, and they need us to stand with them.”
An emotional Robinson also addressed Matthew himself before taking his ashes to a private internment ceremony. “Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. Oh yeah, and Matt, welcome home. Amen.”