By the time the lights came up after the screening at the Chilmark Community Center last Wednesday of Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, most of the audience was in tears. The film tells the story of Matt Shepard, an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming who was brutally murdered in 1998. In the film, director Michele Josue talks to the people who were closest to Matt, including family, friends and mentors, recounting his life and tragic death.
A panel discussion after the film included Ms. Josue, producers Liam McNiff and Arlene McGlade, and Matt Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard. The event was sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.
Before the discussion even began, the panel was met by an outburst of applause, which slowly grew into a standing ovation. Although Ms. Josue has spent countless hours working on and watching her film, she was also visibly in tears.
“The hardest part is seeing Matt again, getting to know him, losing him again, and then seeing how everyone else is just as affected,” said Ms. Josue. “That gets me every single time. I’m always so grateful for the response. It has been a magical thing.”
Thomas Bena, the founder of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, immediately opened up the discussion to the audience.
The first hand in the air belonged to Scott Nelson, who just last weekend organized the Vineyard’s first public pride event at The Yard.
“I want to thank the festival for bringing such a powerful movie to us, we are really lucky to have you guys,” Mr. Nelson said. He continued to tell his own story of coming out as a teenager in Kansas. For two years afterwards, Mr. Nelson’s parents stopped speaking to him, but after Matt Shepard’s murder, they started to have a discussion with Scott and accept him.
“It was really incredible for my family in Atlanta, Georgia, to go from being very ignorant to becoming activists, and I want to thank you very much for sharing your story for all of us, and just know that there’s a lot of really young people who are really influenced by your son and your story every single day,” Mr. Nelson said, addressing Mr. and Mrs. Shepard.
The panel continued to field questions about the film, their stories and the prejudice that still prevails today. The majority of the questions were directed to Mr. and Mrs. Shepard. At the trial of their son’s murderers they waved the death penalty, and have since made tremendous strides towards sexual equality through the Matt Shepard Foundation.
“We all have more in common with each other than we have differences, and the bottom line is we are all an other to somebody,” said Mrs. Shepard. “If we begin to realize that we are all human beings, and we all have the same goals in life to love and be loved, how hard can that be? To give that to someone who is feeling less accepted or less adjusted or even to people who feel entitled to make someone else feel worse... If we can find the answer to that, the world’s problems will be over, I promise.”
Mr. Shepard repeatedly talked about how he will always be angry at his son’s murderers, and that he will always want 10 minutes alone with them. The audience was completely silent as he talked about the difficult decision not to pursue the death penalty for the two men who took his son’s life.
“If we had gone through with the death penalty, Judy convinced me, we would make him a martyr,” said Mr. Shepard. “It would have encouraged other such hate crimes, more than we continue to have now. I hate to say it, but my wife was right.”
The last comment from the audience came from Steve Bernier.
“From the little bit I have learned about the two of you and the love from you in that young man’s heart, I wouldn’t be afraid of Dennis going into that room with his anger for those 10 minutes,” he said. “I know there is a lot of anger in you Dennis, for what’s happened and how unfair this world is. But I am listening to people who are so full of love, it really makes you tick... Let’s not forget the love as we live life with all of this pain. Because in there we can transform and make a better world. Thank you for bringing this here tonight.”