The Matthew Shepard Story

Couch Potato Pickings

I know what you’re thinking – Matthew Shepard, who’s he?

Most Brits won’t have heard of Matthew Shepard, and I expect most Americans won’t know the name either, especially those who don’t even know what state KFC originates from.

But then again, I also suspect that most Brits and most Americans hadn’t heard of Harvey Milk until Sean Penn won his Oscar.

Hmm, yeah, I’m right, aren’t I?

Nevertheless, Matthew Shepard was in the news last week here in the UK. Do you remember now? No? Well, more about that later.

Matthew Shepard was a youth from Laramie, Wyoming who was murdered ten years ago at the tender ago of 21 simply for being gay. This film today tells the story of this shocking crime.

Many people convince themselves that homophobia doesn’t exist anymore. But, unfortunately, it does still exist. It’s rife in schools – just look at the way that kids use the word gay to describe something bad.  And, where homophobia itself doesn’t exist, blindness to homosexuality generally takes its place with the widespread assumption that all women fancy men and all men fancy women.

This lack of acceptance comes from ignorance, and while I’m delighted to hear the news this week that finally people are seriously making steps to introduce gay education into schools to tackle this problem, such a positive development has also seen numerous narrow-minded individuals crawling out of the woodwork to oppose the decision.

With such disapproval still strong in our society, it baffles me how so many people don’t actually realise that most of their gay friends have struggled to find a happy place in the world. ‘Gays always seem so happy’ is the usual perception.

Yes, gay people love to be happy because they know all too well how hideous it is to be really sad. Think about it.

And Shepard’s horrific murder in 1998 (even though it occured a good 20 years after Harvey Milk’s campaigns for gay rights) illustrates this ongoing struggle for acceptance, as does the devastating vote to ban gay marriage in California last year.

In the wake of Matthew Shepard’s murder, a number of films were produced, as well as an even greater number of tribute songs, and a play (later turned into a film) called The Laramie Project. This stage play, which depicts the reaction of the people of Laramie, Wyoming, to Shepard’s murder, has done the rounds in America, and made the news last week here in the UK because of a production taking place in Basingstoke.

One of the characters in the play is the American cleric Fred Phelps.

Now, anybody who watched Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary about the most hated family in America will probably have bells of recognition ringing now. Yes, the Westboro Baptist Church, headed by Fred Phelps, is basically a family who call themselves a church and teach their children to hate gay people.

They also believe that America is doomed for tolerating homosexuality and spend most of their time picketing the funerals of service people killed in Iraq because they believe that these individuals were serving what they call a “sodomite nation of flag-worshiping idolators.”

In addition to these funeral demonstrations, the Westboro Baptist Church also spend much of their time travelling across the USA to picket every performance of The Laramie Project that they hear about.

When the church heard that a theatrical group in Basingstoke, England were going to stage this play last week they booked their flight to the UK intending to bring their vitriol over here.

Fortunately Home Secretary Jacqui Smith banned them from coming. Go Jacqui.

Take a look at the Westboro Baptists’ webshite to see how they reacted to that decision. Reading between the lines, I’d dare to suggest that they might have been a little disappointed…

Read the full story here.

With double Oscar-winner Milk bringing the history of gay rights to mainstream attention, it’s a shame that today’s movie about Matthew Shepard isn’t getting more of a prime time slot today. However, it’s better than nothing at all, and to give it credit, Five is also showing another movie tomorrow at the same time about a man driven to suicide because of the lack of acceptance around his homosexuality. It stars Sigourney Weaver and promises to be a real tearkerker. Read more about it here.

Latest TV News