To this activist, Matthew Shepard is more than a symbol. He was also her friend.

Matthew Shepard
Matthew Shepard Photo: The National Museum of American History/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming college student who was brutally beaten and left for dead in a remote area of Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. The unimaginable hate crime and the trials and convictions of Shepard’s killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, captured national attention and ultimately led to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act 11 years later.

In the years since his death, numerous books, films, and documentaries have examined Shepard’s life and the events leading up to and following his senseless murder. The latest, The Matthew Shepard Story: An American Hate Crime arrives this week on Investigation Discovery (ID) and Max. Alongside archival audio interviews with Shepard’s parents, law enforcement, and others involved in the case, the documentary features new interviews with out celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell, Adam Lambert, and Andrew Rannells discussing the impact the case had on gay rights. Also included are conversations with those who knew Shepard personally.

One of those friends is Romaine Patterson. The podcaster, activist, and author of The Whole World Was Watching: Living in the Light of Matthew Shepard met Shepard when they were both college students in Wyoming. She joined LGBTQ Nation recently to discuss the new film, the lasting impact of Shepard’s death, and why it’s so important to revisit his story in 2023.

LGBTQ NATION: How did you meet Matthew Shepard, and what was your relationship with him like?

ROMAINE PATTERSON: I met Matthew my first year of college. I attended Casper College in Casper, Wyoming, where he was living at the time. And I was an out lesbian at the time, which was pretty unheard of for kids my age then, and I kind of ran with this small gaggle of gays. One day I got a call from an instructor on the campus. She had received a call from a therapist and he had a client, Matthew, who was looking to meet other young gay college-age kids that he could hang out with. And she put him in touch with us.

That’s how we met initially, and we quickly became friends. He quickly became a member of my gaggle of gays. We stayed friends up until the time of his death.

LGBTQ NATION: Of course, his death was so tragic and disturbing. But beyond that trauma, I imagine it must be a strange experience to have watched as this person you knew has become a symbol over the years.

RP: That process started almost immediately. Almost from the very get-go, the media portrayed Matthew as this Christ-like figure that was “crucified” on this fence, right? So, from the very beginning, I remember talking to [Matthew’s parents] Judy and Dennis early on, and they said, “If you’re gonna do interviews, just tell the truth about who Matthew was. It’s better that we represent who he really was than what they want to portray him to be.”

And so, my goal has always been that. I’ve always been very honest about Matthew’s good qualities and some of his flaws, because I think it’s really important to understand who he was as a human being, not just as a symbol of hate crimes and things like that in the world.

So, I’ve always tried to maintain that, but I also respect the fact that Matthew has become bigger. When I think about him in my own personal life, I think about Matthew as two different people. There’s Matt, who was my friend, and then there’s Matthew Shepard. And those are two very distinct different things. Matt was the person I hung out with and we were silly with and we did dumb stuff with. And Matthew Shepard is this icon, is this story, is the change that has come about because of this horrible incident. So, as a friend, I’ve learned to separate those two things.

But I also really appreciate Matthew Shepard. I really appreciate how his story and how his death has changed the world, how it has influenced people, made them feel comfortable coming out, how it has inspired hate crimes legislation. Like, you have to respect Matthew Shepard and what that name means now, and how it is different from the person I used to hang out with.

LGBTQ NATION: Why do you think this hate crime became what it became? Why did it strike a chord nationally?

RP: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question, and I think there are some very clear answers to it. First, I always say, nothing ever happens in Wyoming. So, when something happens, it’s significant. There’s also the timeline— which I think this documentary does a really good job of demonstrating — of how Matthew was found, he was put in the hospital, while he’s in the hospital the attackers are caught and arrested and are being arraigned. And then Matthew dies. So, the story itself is very sensational. It’s got this great timeline for the media to really sink their teeth into, right? Also, I think the nation was ready to talk about gay people. There had been a lot of movement in the gay world. Ellen had come out. There was significant movement and conversations about gay people in society.

But the most important thing — and I think we really need to recognize this, especially right now — the most important thing was that Matthew was an adorable blonde white kid that came from an upper-middle-class family. If Matthew had been Hispanic or Black or Native American, we would not have heard Matthew’s story. He wasn’t the first hate crime, he’s certainly not the last, and what we see right now in hate crimes are attacks on people of color who are gay, on transgender women of color, and we do not hear the same kind of media coverage for them as we did for Matthew. And I think you really have to recognize race as a part of Matthew’s story.

Matthew Shepard, in a family photo carried in his father’s wallet.
Courtesy the Matthew Shepard Foundation Matthew Shepard, in a family photo carried in his father’s wallet.

LGBTQ NATION: This year marks the 25th anniversary of his death. Beyond honoring your friend, why is it so important to revisit this crime in 2023?

RP: I think it’s important to revisit this story because history is about to repeat itself. It already kind of is happening. The culture towards gay people back in 1998 is not much different than it is right now.

The last four to six years, we have seen a significant increase in anti-gay sentiment in this country, anti-trans sentiment. And part of that is because, let’s face it, the Trump presidency emboldened a lot of this behavior, this hatred to kind of come to the surface and be spoken out loud. So, I think we have to look at our history, we have to look back and see how we got to that point then so that we can avoid getting to that point again. It is very important to look at how we as a society are going to tackle our own bias, whether it’s racism or homophobia or transphobia or xenophobia. Whatever it is, whatever our bias is, we have to look within and figure out how we’re going to overcome those biases and make our society better for everybody.

I have a lot of friends from Wyoming, and I don’t always agree with their points of view. I don’t always agree with their politics. But the one thing we can agree on is that they’re human beings, and as human beings I will respect their right to have their beliefs. We don’t have to agree, we don’t even have to get along. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to hurt you or cause you harm.

I think that’s a lot of what the Matthew Shepard Foundation has tried to do. Their mission is to erase hate, and that is such a gigantic goal. How do you erase hate in our society? Well, it starts by looking inside yourself and tackling those internal biases whether you know that you have them or not. It also is about holding other people accountable when you see them demonstrating bias towards another community. It’s about speaking up.

LGBTQ NATION: As you said, the past few years have seen what feels like an alarming resurgence of anti-LGBTQ+ hatred in the U.S. As an activist, what has it been like to see that, and to revisit Matthew Shepard’s story and everything that came after it in that context?

RP: Here’s the reality: Matthew is never not with me. He’s a part of my day-to-day life. Every anniversary is challenging and has its own challenges that come with it. My wife knows to prepare, that I’m going to be a little sad for a couple weeks in October every year. My good friends check in on me. So, you know, for me it never goes away. It’s been 25 years of attempting to educate people about hate crimes, attempting to talk to people about LGBTQ issues. It is a mission I take very seriously because I believe that’s what Matthew would want me to do. As his friend, he would want me to speak for someone who can no longer speak. I’m really cognizant of how I do that and what I say, because I understand the power of words and the power of actions and what impact it can have.

The biggest thing now, and things that have changed, is I’m a mom. I have a 16-year-old kid who is not that much younger than I was when this all happened. So, for me, as I’m watching my child grow in this current society, I’m always thinking about the work that I’ve done and the work that still needs to be done, because I want her to live in a world that is better than the world I grew up in, that she doesn’t have to worry about her gay friends being attacked for being who they are.

We talk about bullying in high school and junior high. We’ve talked about those tough issues, we’ve had those conversations. I’m excited because I think her generation gets it in a way that my generation didn’t and the generations before me didn’t. The way they look at gender identity, the way they look at sexual orientation, is just with much more open minds, I think. I know there are parts of the country where that’s probably not the case, but I am grateful that there are parts of the country now where that is the case, and that she has got more support than I had when I was her age.

LGBTQ NATION: There have been several films and documentaries about Matthew Shepard over the years. What sets this documentary apart?

RP: I think one of the things that I like most about this documentary is how it lays out the timeline of events — and it does it in a very clear, simple, succinct way that makes it very easy to understand how things happened and what happened. I also really appreciate the fact that they have the voices of law enforcement in this. We see it a little bit in things like The Laramie Project and things like that. But there has been this revisionist history that has tried to happen over the last, let’s say, 10 years or so, where there are people out there who want to say that this was not a hate crime. That this was a crime about drugs or all these other things. But the reality is there’s never been evidence to support that.

I think hearing from the police themselves and hearing the audiotapes of Aaron [McKinney] and Russell [Henderson] is so important because you can’t pretend that it’s something that it isn’t when they’re saying, “He looked like a queer, like a f**.” It’s pretty clear. So, for those people who want to rewrite history because they can’t face the fact that this level of hate exists in our country, I think they have to take a look at themselves and ask themselves why they can’t accept that fact. Why is it that they want to have any other reason that this crime could have happened? All these other theories that people want to have just hold no weight, and I like that the documentary made that visible.

LGBTQ NATION: One of the most indelible images to come out of the aftermath of the murder was you and a group of counter-protesters dressed as angels with huge wings blocking the Westboro Baptists’ hateful signs at Henderson and McKinney’s trials. You organized that counter-protest. Tell me about that and how you came up with the idea.

RP: It’s pretty simple, actually. Fred Phelps had come to the memorial service, and then he came back to Laramie for the trial of Russell Henderson. I really struggled with the idea of Judy and Dennis walking past these protesters on their way to court to face one of Matthew’s killers. It bothered me. It bothered me that [the late Westboro Baptist pastor] Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church could show up anywhere they wanted, they’d been doing it for years, and no one ever did anything to stop them or to counter them in any way. I just didn’t understand why no one had ever done anything. It made me mad, frankly. So, I along with my good friend Jim Osborne — we were talking about [Phelps] coming back to town and what we were going to do, and this idea of creating angel wings kind of spontaneously sprung about.

LGBTQ NATION: So there was no precedent for blocking picket signs like that?

RP: No. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptists had never been counter-protested before the Angel Action. We came up with the idea for big wings, block out their signs, come between them and the media — which is what they really craved. That was the thinking. But more importantly, we wanted a very clear way of showing the world, which would be watching, the difference between love and compassion and peace and hate. You put those wings up and you see those signs behind them and it is crystal clear: good vs. bad. We just wanted people to see that there was good in Laramie. There were good people and there were good friends of Matthew’s who wanted to protect Judy and Dennis.

I remember, my mom — I called her and told her what we were doing and she got so mad at me. She was like, “You can’t do that!” She said, “Why don’t you just paint a bullseye on your back? Your friend just got murdered for being gay and now you will too.” At the time I was so mad at her, and she was thinking with a mom brain: I love my child, I don’t want anything to happen to you. And now I can see it, now that I’m a mom. But there were people who thought we were crazy when we did it.

LGBTQ NATION: Similar tactics have since been used by other groups like Parasol Patrol to shield kids and families from hateful protests. What has it been like seeing that?

RP: It brings me a lot of pride knowing that this little group of young people changed how Fred Phelps would be treated for the rest of his life.

After that, people realized that they didn’t just have to allow these guys to show up in their towns and spread hate. They actually realized there are very simple solutions sometimes to difficult problems. People started counter-protesting him wherever he went. Everywhere the Westboro Baptist Church showed up, people counter-protested. I think it just took people a second to realize they didn’t have to stand for this crap. Don’t just let hatred walk into your town and spew all over the place. You can do something about it. I think people got inspired.

It makes me really happy that this idea spurred change. But it all comes from Matthew. At the end of the day, the last conversation I had with Matthew, he said that he wanted to change the world. He had all of these ideas about how he would go work in government to do that. And I literally laughed at him. I was like, “Yeah, yeah, you can change the world, sure, sure.” I didn’t believe that one person could change the world. And when he died, I learned very quickly that I was wrong. That is so much about what I do now. I try to remind people that you as one person can change the world, whether it’s being kind to a young LGBTQ person who’s struggling, confronting some kind of hatred in your community, or being part of the PTA because you want to make sure the kids are safe — there are so many ways, as individuals, we get the opportunity to change the world for the better.

We should all be like Matthew. We should want to do it.

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