Washington • Bells chimed softly, a flute slowly played “Morning Has Broken” and thousands filled the soaring nave of the Washington National Cathedral for the interment of Matthew Shepard, the young man whose murder 20 years ago came to symbolize the hatred many Americans have harbored toward gay people.
The poignant service was at once a funeral and a celebration of life, a moment of closure for Shepard’s loved ones and of remembrance for all those moved by the murder of Shepard, who was pistol-whipped and left for dead in a remote Wyoming prairie.
Presiding over the worship service at the second-largest cathedral in the country, in front of a crowd of about 2,025 people, was Bishop Gene Robinson, whose elevation in the early 2000s as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church marked another huge — and controversial — milestone in the push for LGBT equality.
In his homily, Robinson shared an anecdote from the first police officer who arrived at the site of Shepard’s attack, a remote fence to which his battered body was lashed and had spent the cold night. When the officer arrived, he said, a deer was laying beside Shepard’s body. Upon her arrival, the animal looked straight into the officer’s eyes and ran away.
“What she said was: ‘That was the good Lord, no doubt in my mind.' And there’s no doubt in my mind either. God has always loved Matt,” Robinson said.
Robinson chocked back tears as he spoke of his own consecration as an openly gay Episcopal bishop, about five years after Shepard’s death.
“Just before I strapped on my bullet proof vest for my consecration, someone hand delivered a note from Judy Shepard. It said: ‘I know Matthew will be smiling down upon you tomorrow," Robinson said.
Rippling through the Cathedral at times was the crackling energy of a political rally, with Robinson urging the crowd not to simply commemorate Shepard but to train their eyes on continued discrimination against sexual minorities, especially transgender people, who he called a “target" right now.
Just this week reports surfaced that the Trump administration is “seriously” considering changing the way it treats transgender people under the law — a fresh and direct aim at transgender rights.
“There are forces who would erase them from America,” Robinson said. Twice he urged the crowd to ”go vote.”
The crowd gave Robinson a long-standing ovation as he closed, choking down these final words:
“There are three things I’d say to Matt: ‘Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. And Matt, welcome home.’ Amen.”
Earlier in the service, Matthew Shepard’s father, Dennis Shepard, thanked those in Cathedral, and the scores of others watching the live-streamed service online, for “helping us take Matt home.”
“It is so important we now have a home for Matt," Shepard, 69, said. “A home that others can visit. A home that is safe from haters."
The father recalled his son’s love for the Episcopal church, growing up in Sunday school and as an acolyte in their church at home in Wyoming.
“Matt was blind, just like this beautiful house of worship," Dennis Shepard said. "He did not see skin color. He did not see religion. He did not see sex orientation. All he saw was a chance to have another friend.
For Shepard’s family and friends, the interment served as a celebration of his life that wasn’t possible at the tumultuous time of his 1998 murder, when anti-gay protesters screamed at funeral-goers. Tensions were so fierce at his funeral that his father wore a bulletproof vest under his blue suit.
Before the start of the service at 10 a.m., the line of people bundled in heavy coats snaked across the grounds of the massive church, at the U.S. capital’s highest spot. Those in the crowd were mostly older adults, members of a generation that can still recall Shepard’s killing, when he was pistol-whipped and left for dead, tied to a fence in a remote Wyoming prairie.
But even for those in attendance too young to remember the Shepard’s death, his story has resonated years later. Abigail Mocettini, a 24-year-old who grew up in Boise, said Shepard’s death loomed “in the background” for young people coming out —"especially in the West."
“As we were coming out, this affected our parents and informed their fears,” Mocettini, now a D.C. resident, said as she prepared to enter the Cathedral. “Acknowledging queer history is a thing that needs to be respected. Once the old guard gets older, people forget how we got to rainbow flags in Dupont."
Mocettini said attacks against members of the LGBT community could still happen today, and that acceptance isn’t near for trans people and queer people of color.
Matthew Shepard is pictured in Rome in 1993. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History). (Joe Hursey/Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)
Officials had earlier said it might be possible a small group of protesters would arrive from Westboro Baptist Church, a tiny Kansas church that frequently pickets against gay rights. But on Friday, there were no signs of protesters outside the Cathedral.
One woman waiting in line to enter the Cathedral, Rebecca York, 22, said she does not recall Shepard’s death. But she learned in a college course that Shepard’s killing was a “landmark” for changing the conversation about anti-gay hate.
York works with LGBT youth at a D.C.-based group called Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, known as SMYAL. About two-thirds of the young people in her group were not aware of Matthew Shepard, so York has spent this week educating them about the case.
“It hit close to home because Matthew was someone everyone could relate to,” York said. “Because of that they were able to make great strides.”
Most young people the group sees are African American men, York said. A city survey found 43 percent of homeless youth in D.C. identify as LGBTQ.
“Threat of physical violence is not new to them,” York said. “It’s scary to be a young gay man.”
Some close to Shepard say even with his fame — his killing is the subject of many books, shows and one of the most-produced plays in the country, “The Laramie Project” — the idea of his interment in the prominent cathedral feels momentous. Also this week, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History received a donation from the family of some of his belongings.
“We’re all awed. It’s just very humbling to see the Smithsonian and the cathedral recognize the power of Matthew’s story all these years later,” said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which advocates in particular for gay youths, including through hate-crimes legislation. Marsden was a friend of Shepard’s at the time of the killing. “Especially for those who knew him, this is both something we never wanted and never expected. It affirms what we’ve always thought, that his story is powerful and inspires people.”
Among those singing at the service were members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C.; GenOUT, a chorus for LGBT youth; and Conspirare, a Grammy-winning choral group that is touring “Considering Matthew Shepard,” a classical project created as a “compassionate musical response to the murder of Matthew Shepard,” according to the group’s site.
Other music included Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken,” said to be a favorite of Shepard, “Imagine” by John Lennon, and “MLK” by U2.
Among the scripture readings was a passage from Romans 8, which was read at Shepard’s funeral 20 years ago. It includes the phrase:
“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
After the service, only the clergy and family will descend to the area of the columbarium, where dozens of other prominent people’s ashes are kept, for a small interment ceremony. In that area is a public chapel, which is outside of the columbarium where Matthew Wayne Shepard’s remains will rest.
For some of those performing in Friday’s service, the chance to be a part of Shepard’s interment was particularly poignant.
Marcus Brown, a 42-year-old Gay Men’s Chorus member and D.C. resident, vividly recalls the week of Shepard’s death. Brown was a college student at Howard University, hoping to escape the rural South Carolina hometown he grew up in. He remembers thinking how closely his own life paralleled Shepard’s, “being from places that were not accepting and finding the best ways to cope with how to exist.” At the time of Shepard’s death, he had not come out as gay.
As Brown prepared to sing at the interment, he reflected on the uncertainty and fear he felt at the time, but also on the confidence and freedom he has gained in the 15 years since coming out, in part thanks to Shepard.
“It’s our responsibility as members of a certain age to pass those stories down,” Brown said, “to explain that the progress that we have made has come through a lot of trials and tribulations.”