Sixteen years after the beating death of gay college student Matthew Shepard, whose stunning attack in Wyoming created a generation of advocates for gay rights, new revelations about his life continue to come out.
Among them is that Shepard, who was 21 when he was lashed to a fence and left to die in October 1998, was afraid of coming out as a gay man to his family — even a family like the Shepards, who became the face of anti-gay violence and one of the community’s most staunch allies.
It’s a detail that could only be told by his friends, and it surprised his mother, Judy, who first learned of his trepidation in a new documentary about his life, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine. "We didn’t know that Matt had been afraid to tell us. We thought we’d created an environment of acceptance," Judy Shepard said Monday in a telephone interview. "But we’ve found out that the closer you are to someone, the harder it is to tell them."
The Shepards arrive in Austin on Tuesday for a VIP reception in advance of the film’s opening night showing at the 27th annual Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, which showcases more than 100 films spanning issues from culture to immigration, youth, race, gender identify and expression.
Tickets to the VIP reception start at $50 and benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The surprising new documentary by Shepard’s friend Michele Josue and executive producer Liam McNiff will be featured on Wednesday.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is the biography is told not through the eyes of his family, nor the police, but by his friends. The story is told by the ones who hung out with him as a youngster, his adopted “family” of buddies in the Swiss boarding school he attended in high school, the partiers he spent time with in Denver before enrolling in college in Laramie, Wyoming — his home state.
The 88-minute film features rarely or never-before-seen footage of Matt, his journals and letters, extensive interviews with his father, Dennis, and a thorough look into the life of a popular young man whose life until now was largely characterized by his death.
Organizers of aGLIFF chose the Shepard documentary to kick off the festival because they said both the film and the Shepard story encapsulate the theme of this year’s festival, "We’re not an Audience, We’re a Community."
His was a story felt even by those who had never even met him, and it drew in a generation previously in the closet or on the sidelines who chose to make Shepard — and those like him, who had suffered as he had — a part of their own community, said Austin business owner Charlie Ray, treasurer of aGLIFF, the nonprofit governing body of the festival.
Shepard’s death inspired not fear but courage in Ray, who was living as a closeted gay man in Dallas at the time. It filled him with such a burning anger and indignation that he felt like he had to come out, to be visible, to tell his family and friends that "this was a big deal" because "that could have been me."
"It was the first time I sort of stepped out with that kind of courage to be gay back in a time, at least where I’m from, that it did take courage, and it was not mainstream and it did have a sense of danger to it," recalled Ray, who owns the Austin-based digital advertising company Broad Street Co.
That fear and danger explained why Shepard worried about telling his own family, and Judy Shepard says now that the reactions to her son’s death on the part of the closeted community have ranged from those like Ray’s to the opposite extreme.
"We’ve heard both stories," she said. "That it’s made people so afraid that they retreated further in or that they were just so motivated to come out to help change that. I think it is one of Matt’s legacies. There’s a generation of advocates that I don’t think would have happened had this not happened to Matt."
Formerly Polari, aGLIFF is the largest and longest-running LGBT film festival in the Southwest. The festival takes place Wednesday through Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar and the Stateside at the Paramount Theatre. Badges and individual tickets are available here. The entire film schedule can be found here.