By Ben Cartwright | Back Out With Benny
Matthew Shepard died as a result of a beating, then was left tied to a pole in a field, on Oct. 12, 1998 in Wyoming — 20 years ago today. This shook the nation to its core. While LGBTQ people — especially members of our trans community — had been brutally murdered because of who they were for decades before that incident, this was the first time such a murder garnered international attention. At that time, I was in my very first semester of college at San Diego State University (SDSU). It was a different time — marriage equality wasn’t yet the law of the land (we weren’t even sure if we’d ever achieve that — even in California); “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in full effect; and there were very few legal protections for LGBT people.
Shepard was just a few years older than me, was a college student, and even looked a bit like me. My coming out was relatively easy, and I was lucky to grow up just a short drive from Hillcrest. Seeing this news was the first time that I realized that coming out was not always a positive experience. Shepard was just like me, and if it could happen to him, it could happen to me.
I’ll never forget the fear and pain on the faces of the hundreds of students and community members who gathered on the SDSU campus that night for candlelit vigil and march to honor Shepard and stand up against hate. It still stuck with me in 2008, when I thought something should be done to commemorate the decade since Shepard’s death, which was fast approaching.
That year, our community was (rightly so) very focused on the “No on Proposition 8” campaign, and I couldn’t find any group that was planning some sort of commemoration — the community was busy fighting for our rights.
So on Oct. 12, 2008, Rick Cervantes and I went to the John Wear Hate Crimes Plaque on University Avenue (on the sidewalk near Flicks) to place a candle, tie a purple ribbon and put up a “Remember Matthew” poster we made to a nearby parking meter pole. We were proud to see many people stop by, see our memorial and reflect for a few minutes.
The next year, we decided to use our growing Facebook networks to organize a vigil and rally to remember Shepard. The owners of a restaurant called The Ruby Kitchen (in the space that is now Ad Libitum) were kind enough to offer us their cafe as a gathering spot. Approximately 50 people showed up to march and then have a “celebration of life” afterward. We even had a couple news cameras show up!
We decided to make it even bigger in 2010, putting a call out to community members to join a committee we were forming called “San Diego Remembers.” Every year through 2015, we held a rally, march, program, and after-party on the week that marked Shepard’s death. At our peak, more than 500 people showed up.
It was always such a beautiful event, filled with so many people coming out to stand up against hate. One year, the producers of a film created by friends of Shepard called “Matt Shepard Is A Friend of Mine” heard of our event and, following our march, even presented the exclusive premiere of the film at the San Diego LGBT Community Center.
Over the years, our committee members were primarily young people in the community who had never been involved in organizing before. We also turned it into a leadership development experience for them, and so many of them have gone off to do great things in the community. The San Diego Remembers experience is one of my proudest community activities over my 20-plus years of activism. We disbanded after the 2015 event, because we realized that we needed to change the focus to other members of our community who are being murdered every day — especially trans women of color — and find ways to center those lost lives.
But this year marks 20 years since Shepard’s murder, and we decided to come back once more to remember to make this occasion. Shepard still needs to be remembered and we want to do what we can locally to keep that memory alive, especially since so many members of our younger community have never even heard of him.
Everyone is welcome to join us for a small vigil and program at the John Wear Memorial Plaque, located on the 1000 block of University Avenue. We’ll say a few brief words, have a moment of silence for Shepard, and light candles. Then everyone 21 and older will be invited into Flicks to toast to Shepard and all those whose lives we’ve lost to hate violence. Please join us. For more information, visit bit.ly/remember-matthew.
—Benny Cartwright is the director of community outreach at the San Diego LGBT Community Center. He can be reached at 619-692-2077 ext. 106 or firstname.lastname@example.org.