Matthew Shepard is a modern gay martyr who brought international attention to anti-LGBTQ 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.

Since then 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. 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 in visual art

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, 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.

“Matthew Shepard” by Tobias Haller

A sweet portrait of Shepard with a faint rainbow halo was done 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.

“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.

Questioning the mythology of Matthew Shepard

Some question whether Shepard deserves his reputation as a gay martyr, and what ends are being served by the mythology that has grown up around him.
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.

The tendency to acclaim Shepard as a martyr is analyzed in a chapter in a forthcoming book by Brett Krutzsch, visiting assistant professor of religion at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. His book “Dying to be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Quest for Equality” is scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in 2018. The book examines how activists applied Christian traditions to prominent LGBTQ deaths to counteract Christian conservatives between 1995 and 2015.

The chapter stems from a scholarly paper that won the 2014-15 LGBT Religious History Award from the LGBT Religious Archives Network. “The Martyrdom of Matthew Shepard” is an excerpt from Krutzsch’s 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 explores 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.”

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.

Books, films and plays about Matthew Shepard

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Related links:
Cultural Depictions of Matthew Shepard (Wikipedia)
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Top image credit: “The Passion of Matthew Shepard” by William Hart McNichols
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This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
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Kittredge Cherry

Founder at Q Spirit
Kittredge Cherry is a lesbian Christian author who writes regularly about LGBTQ spirituality.She holds degrees in religion, journalism and art history.She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches and served as its national ecumenical officer, advocating for LGBTQ rights at the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.
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