Death of Matthew Shepard Explored Through Alums’ Book and Film

Death of Matthew Shepard Explored Through Alums’ Book and Film

On the 15th anniversary of his murder, the crime still resonates

Director Michele Josue, who knew Matt Shepard in high school, poses with Shepard in the 1990s. Her film, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, was produced by Rutgers alumna Arleen McGlade.
Courtesy of Michele Josue

Screening of Matt Shepard Documentary Oct. 14
 
The Tyler Clementi Center will host "Remembering Matt Shepard," an event that explores the impact and significance of Shepard's murder in 1998.
 
The program, taking place at the Livingston Student Center tonight at 7:30 p.m., includes a screening of the film Matt Shepard was a Friend of Mine, produced by Rutgers alumna Arleen McGlade and directed by Michele Josue, who went to high school with Shepard. In the film, she interviews his friends to present an intimate portrait of Shepard as a teen.
 
Josue will speak at the event, in addition to Beth Loffreda, a Rutgers alumna and author of the book Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder.
 
Read more about Matthew Shepard on the Matthew Shepard Foundation website.
 
 

Beth Loffreda had just moved from New Jersey to teach at the University of Wyoming  when Matthew Shepard was murdered on October 6, 1998. 

Shepard, a 22-year-old student at the school, was viciously beaten by two local men, then lashed to a fence and left to die. He was targeted, apparently, because he was gay.
 
Loffreda, a Rutgers alumna, never met Shepard, but she became fascinated by the crime’s impact on the town of Laramie and the nation.  Shepard’s murder became one of the first high-profile crimes to raise awareness of homophobic violence and a symbol in the battle for gay rights. It resulted in 2009 hate crime legislation named for Shepard, along with plays, songs and films about his life and death.
 
The tragedy inspired Loffreda  to write the book Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder, published in 2001. “I was struck that so many people felt so attached to the story,’’ says Loffreda. “Why Matt? Why this crime? It’s an interesting question about how social change happens.’’
 
Loffreda will be part of the conversation at an October 14 screening of the documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, directed by filmmaker Michele Josue, a high school friend of Shepard’s, and produced by fellow Rutgers alumna Arleen McGlade. The event will be presented by the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers, which focuses on research and education that helps young adults in the digital era navigate transitions in their lives. The program marks the 15-year anniversary of Shepard’s death. 
 
Beth Loffreda, a Rutgers alum, wrote the book Losing Matt Shepard.
Courtesy of Beth Loffreda
McGlade became involved with the film after seeing Josue’s Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the project. She remembers being horrified by news of Shepard’s death in 1998 and wanting to help prevent similar crimes. Fifteen years later, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is her chance to achieve that goal, she says. “The fact that his story sheds light on similar stories that often don't get reported is one reason we continue to talk about Matt,’’ says McGlade. “What better way to honor his memory than to share Matt's story in the hope that this starts a discussion, raises awareness, and encourages everyone to act more compassionately.”
 
While Loffreda’s book is about the ripple effect of Shepard’s murder -- in Laramie and beyond -- McGlade and Josue’s, film, released last month, presents an intimate portrait of Shepard, told through interviews with his friends.
 
Not long before his murder, Shepard, who attended a private high school in Switzerland,  was a first-year student adjusting to college life at the University of Wyoming. Loffreda had just become a faculty advisor to the student LGBT club, despite the fact that she’s straight. Fifteen years ago there was only one openly gay faculty member at the school. Her interest in LGBT issues began at Rutgers, says Loffreda, who grew up in Audubon, Pa. “Rutgers was a place where some really useful thinking about gender and sexuality was going on. Being in the midst of that was really good for me. It made it possible for me to write the book.” 
 
In 1998, LGBT issues and gender identity were becoming part of the national conversation, and Shepard’s murder was a shocking example of the brutality inflicted upon the LGBT community, says Loffreda. It generated a wave of national sympathy that, at the time, was unprecedented for LGBT crime victims. The fact that Shepard was a white, middle class young man undoubtedly helped focus attention on the crime, says Loffreda, who teaches courses in writing and queer studies. But it was also because, in widely published photos, Shepard appeared so vulnerable. With shaggy blonde hair and a melancholy smile, he stood 5’4 and weighed only 100 pounds.
 
“He looked so young and sweet,’’ she says. “And although anti-gay murders are typically characterized by terrible violence, his murder was especially horrific. He was out on the prairie, tied to a fence in the terrible cold and left there for more than a day. The murder humanized him even for people who didn’t think of gay people as fully human.’’
 
Program Kicks Off RU-Ally Week
 
The Matthew Shephard program comes at the start of RU Ally Week, sponsored by the Rutgers Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, which encourages straight people to support LGBT rights. “We’re interested in how the story gets remembered. What gets remembered? How? And for whom?’’ says Rick Lee, the Tyler Clementi Center’s associate director, who teaches courses on LGBT culture, AIDS literature, and Asian American Studies.  “We wanted to explore how people are thinking about his death 15 years later.’’
 
Lee is also curious about students’ perceptions of the case. “They were so young when it happened. Due to increased visibility of LGBT people and the debates over marriage equality, many people, young and old, respond with, ‘oh things are so much better. This kind of thing isn’t happening now.’ We want them to understand that this kind of violence is still going on and legalization of gay marriage doesn’t take homophobia off the table.’’
 
An excerpt from Loffreda’s book is included in The New Humanities Reader, and many “Expository Writing 101" instructors have assigned the text as required reading for their students.
 
Although Shepard’s murder has become synonymous with homophobia, a new book by Stephen Jiminez, a gay journalist who spent years researching the case, presents evidence that the killing was largely motivated by drugs. According to The Book of Matt, Shepard may have been dealing meth. Jiminez also quotes Laramie residents who claim Shepard and his killers had previous sexual encounters. But some critics have denounced the book for relying too heavily on anonymous sources. 
 
Loffreda hasn’t read The Book of Matt. But she believes that even if Shepard wasn’t killed solely because he was gay, that was part of the motive.“His possible involvement with drugs doesn’t mean that homophobia wasn’t also a spur,’’ she says.”Much about that night is lost to us because Matt is lost.”
 
Both The Book of Matt, and Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, are proof that Shepard's death continues to resonate today. “I think there is still much to learn from what happened to him and what happened in the aftermath,’’ says Loffreda. “Clearly there is a desire to keep telling these stories and explore what they mean.’’