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Matthew Shepard Laid To Rest 20 Years Later


On a cold night in Wyoming 20 years ago this month, a young man named Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die. Shepard was gay, and his killing was widely seen as a crime of hatred. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that the interment of Shepard's ashes at the National Cathedral in Washington is meant to highlight the need to protect LGBT people.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Here's Sheriff Gary Puls in Laramie, Wyo., at a press conference in 1998, describing how Matthew Shepard was found.


GARY PULS: The gentleman was tied to a buck fence, and that's a pole fence. He was unconscious and actually has not gained consciousness.

GJELTEN: Shepard had been hit in the head with a gun. He hung on that fence for 18 hours before anyone found him. He died in a hospital five days later. Two men were charged with his murder and sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors said Shepard was targeted simply for being gay. Whether that explanation was entirely accurate has been disputed. But it may not matter. Hate crimes happen. Anti-gay bigotry is real. And Matthew Shepard is, for many, the face of that phenomenon.

GENE ROBINSON: This is very personal for me.

GJELTEN: Leading Shepard's interment ceremony at the National Cathedral will be Bishop Gene Robinson. As the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, he knows the sting of prejudice firsthand.

ROBINSON: I had to wear a bulletproof vest to my own consecration as bishop. For the next two and a half years, I had almost daily death threats. So to be able to carry Matthew's ashes in the procession is an indescribable honor for me.

GJELTEN: Shepard's parents requested that their son's ashes be interred here only after deciding against other places for fear any burial site might be desecrated. The cathedral agreed to their request. It's affiliated with the Episcopal Church, among the most LGBT-friendly denominations. The Reverend Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop here, sees the cathedral becoming a place of pilgrimage.

MARIANN BUDDE: There will be young people from all across the country having tours here and being educated here. And when they pass by, they will see a plaque in his honor. They will see that this is a church that has learned that we need to stand and be counted as among those who work for the full embrace of all God's children.

GJELTEN: Matthew Shepard's parents were at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History yesterday to donate some of their son's personal possessions, from his Superman cape to his report cards. Judy Shepard said she wants people to see her son as just like any other child.

JUDY SHEPARD: Every other child has a Superman cape. Every child has a preschool diploma. Every other child had all these things up here that you see. There was absolutely nothing different about Matt, other than who he loved. And why would you care?

GJELTEN: The Shepards have another son. Dennis Shepherd says honoring his gay son at this point has a political goal, to end discrimination.

DENNIS SHEPARD: We had a straight son and a gay son, and they're not considered equal. They don't have the same rights. And why is that? I can't get an answer from anybody. They want to take rights away from the LGBTQ community. But when I ask them and I compare my two sons, they can't tell me why.

GJELTEN: When his ashes are interred today at the National Cathedral, Matthew Shepard will be in a place of honor alongside the remains of Helen Keller. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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