It seems like only yesterday the 24-hour American news machine was churning out details surrounding the horrifying events that led to the death of a gay college student from Wyoming. On October 6th, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was abducted by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, beaten, tortured, and left for dead, his hands bound to a remote wooden fence post. Though Matthew died of his injuries six days later, the news media kept him alive for months through headlines, interviews, and analysis. And while the legacy of Matthew Shepard lives on today as a symbol for LGBT rights and hate crime prevention, it was only his dearest friends and loving family who really knew the real Matt Shepard.
“It took 12 years to build up enough courage,” recalls Michele Josue, a filmmaker and close friend of Matt Shepard. “I was 19 when it happened and I almost immediately was witnessing Matt becoming just a headline. It was surreal, heartbreaking.”
In 2010, Michele Josue decided the next step of the healing process was to share who Matt Shepard really was. As a high school classmate and friend of Matt’s, Michele began reaching out to other friends who knew him, setting the groundwork for the documentary, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine. “[Making this film] was a four year process,” says the director. “A very emotional project for me. He was my friend…not just a political headline.”
Weaving an emotional and often heart wrenching story, Josue poignantly reveals the Matt Shepard most of the world never got the chance to meet. “The title of the film is very literal,” states the director. “Beyond that is the message, ‘Matt is a human being.’”
In the 16 years since Matt Shepard’s death, the LGBT community has seen many great changes. More and more states in the US are recognizing the right of gay marriage. LGBT politicians and activists are speaking up. Celebrities and members of media are no longer afraid to reveal their sexuality. “Things have changed tremendously,” Michelle points out. “Marriage Equality almost seems like a forgone conclusion anymore. LGBT rights issues are way more prominent. People are coming out at a younger age now.” She goes on to say, however, “in some parts of the world, though, some still face the threat of violence. When you see that it’s a reminder of how much further we still need to go.”
Looking back on the events surrounding her friend’s murder, Michele herself had a difficult and transformative experience when confronted with the notion of forgiving Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson for their crimes. “It was difficult to swallow. I didn’t want to hear it, but it was right to forgive. I was confronted with the idea that they were both human…not the monsters like in my head.” A difficult hurdle to overcome, Michele states, “You can forgive, but you don’t have to forget.”
However, as Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine made its rounds through film festivals, Michele experienced a surprising emotion with every screening. “Everywhere was overwhelmingly positive,” she recalls. “I would sit with the audiences, and you feel this charged energy. Toronto, Taiwan, St. Petersburg, the emotions are the same anywhere. It was mindblowing to see how Matt’s story touched a mother in Taiwan the same way it affected a young girl in Canada.”
The award-winning documentary opens in New York on February 6th and Los Angeles on February 13th, with plans to expand throughout US and Canadian markets in the coming months. All are encouraged to experience this brief glimpse into a far too short life. A life that, despite having such a great impact on LGBT rights, was a life few of us really truly understood. Michele sums it best, “Matt Shepard could have been a friend of yours too. He’s just like all of us.”