Friday, March 22, 2013

Matthew Shepard, I Wish I'd Never Heard of You

Yesterday, this beautiful video was making the rounds on Facebook.  It's really lovely, and it makes its point clearly.  Everyone in the video died before they had the chance to accomplish all that they could have.  We are all poorer because they didn't get the chance.  Towards the end, we see the headline "Matthew Shepard, 36, Leads Anti-Bullying Coalition."

Matthew Shepard was born on December 1, 1976, and until October 12, 1998 was one day younger than me.  But since that day, the gap has been widening, and now he is almost 15 years younger.  Yes, I know, the bell tolls for thee. The age-enhanced photo showed him looking exactly as he did when he was alive, only unmistakably 36 instead of 21.

I was as touched by the video as anyone, but one thing kept nagging at me.  Unlike everyone else featured, who Matthew Shepard was in life is not common knowledge.  Even Anne Frank, who died younger than he did, got a chance to tell us who she was.  Matthew Shepard is famous because of the way he died.  Unlike most murder victims, we at least remember his name instead of his murderers'.  Even so, it's highly unlikely that we would know his name if he had lived.  Maybe he has taught us more about bullying and hate crimes than he could have otherwise, but does that make his early, horrific death worth it?  Hell no.

No doubt Matthew Shepard would have done something with his life, but we have no reason to believe that bullying would have been his pet issue.  A quick internet search tells me that he was personable, passionate about equality, that he had a love of foreign languages and cared about the environment.  Yes, the video does address that he was a political science major.  But we don't know what kind of man he would have become, and he can't tell us.  All we can say for sure is that Matthew Shepard should be 36.

He and I would probably have never crossed paths, but I still can't shake the feeling that he should be here with me, steadily careening toward middle-age. It's terrifying, but only if you don't compare it to being tied to a fence and beaten to death by two thugs.  Sure, if that happens you get to stay 21.  But not in a good way.  If he were here, we wouldn't need to project an identity that might have nothing to do with who he would have become onto him.  He probably wouldn't have reached so many people, but anyone he did get to meet would get to know a real human instead of a mythical symbol.

"Matthew Shepard, 36, Leads Anti-Bullying Coalition."  It has a nice ring to it, but "Man-You've-Never-Heard-of-Because-He-Wasn't-Tortured-to-Death-in-1998, 36, Lives Some Sort of Life Somewhere" sounds even better.  He didn't need to get famous or lead a revolution.  Leading an anti-bullying coalition would be great, but leading an ordinary life would have been good enough.     You could be average.  Even, God forbid, mediocre.  I'd love you anyway, struggling, imperfect soul to struggling, imperfect soul.  Matthew Shepard, I wish you were here, even though if you were I wouldn't know it.