Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine
Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, released in 2013, tells the story of the life and death of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man who was brutally beaten in a field outside of Laramie, Wyoming in October of 1998. He died a few days later at the hospital. LGBTQ activists (as well as decent people across the country) responded to Shepard’s death with horror and outrage. The Matthew Shepard Foundation, founded by Matthew’s parents, describes the murder as “one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history.” (Incidentally, the crime was never ruled a hate crime in court.) Here, we examine the metronormativity evident in both the documentary as well as the discourses around Shepard’s death more broadly.
The clip opens with the challenges that Matt had while living in Denver: he suffered from depression and did not find necessary support. Aside from this brief mention, the film largely ignores that Matt also struggled outside of Wyoming. In describing Matt’s decision to move back to Wyoming, a journalist and old friend of Matt’s, for example, describes Wyoming as “lonesome” and conservative “both politically and socially.” Here, Wyoming is the problem. In the next scene, Matt’s mentors provide an alternative framing. They encouraged Matt to return to Laramie, suggesting that they knew it was the right place for him at the time. After the move, Matt told his former guidance counselor that he finally felt safe. On the day of his murder, he called an old teacher from high school and mentioned that his move to go to school Laramie was the greatest decision he’d made. “There was just a lot of stuff that was right about being in Laramie,” Matt’s former guidance counselor explained, “[h]ow could anybody know that it was
probably the most dangerous place he could be?” The film largely neglects Matt’s positive feelings about being in Laramie, and instead, presents the mentors’ advice as misguided. In fact, the film sandwiches the description of Laramie as a good place for Matt between characterizing Laramie as isolating and discussing Matt’s upcoming murder, complete with ominous background music. E. Cram, a Communication Studies scholar who writes about queer rurality, explains why it is important to address the contrast between Matthew Shepard’s Laramie and the Laramie in the post-crime national spotlight: “[H]omophobia becomes spatialized to the rural and possibilities for queer citizenship move to the urban, foreclosing the possibility of a queer rural citizenship” (2016, 269).