Bells chimed softly, a flute slowly played “Morning Has Broken” and thousands filled the soaring nave of the Washington National Cathedral on Friday for the interment of Matthew Shepard, the man whose murder 20 years ago came to symbolize the hatred many Americans have harbored toward gay people.
The poignant service was at once a funeral and a celebration of life, a moment of closure for Shepard’s loved ones and of remembrance for all those moved by the slaying of the 20-year-old Shepard, who was pistol-whipped and left for dead in a remote Wyoming prairie.
Presiding over the worship service in front of a crowd of about 2,025 people, was Bishop Gene Robinson, whose elevation in the early 2000s as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church marked another huge — and controversial — milestone in the push for LGBTQ equality.
In his homily, Robinson shared an anecdote from the first police officer who arrived at the site of Shepard’s attack, a remote fence to which his battered body was lashed and had spent the cold night. When the officer arrived, he said, a deer was lying beside Shepard’s body. Upon her arrival, the animal looked straight into the officer’s eyes and ran away.
“What she said was: ‘That was the good Lord, no doubt in my mind.’ And there’s no doubt in my mind either. God has always loved Matt,” Robinson said.
Robinson choked back tears as he spoke of his own consecration as an openly gay Episcopal bishop, about five years after Shepard’s death.
“Just before I strapped on my bulletproof vest for my consecration, someone hand-delivered a note from Judy Shepard. It said: ‘I know Matthew will be smiling down upon you tomorrow,’” Robinson said.
Rippling through the cathedral at times was the crackling energy of a political rally, with Robinson urging the crowd not to simply commemorate Shepard but to train their eyes on continued discrimination against sexual minorities, especially transgender people, who he called a “target” right now.
Just this week reports surfaced that the Trump administration is “seriously” considering changing the way it treats transgender people under the law — a fresh and direct aim at transgender rights.
“There are forces who would erase them from America,” Robinson said. Twice he urged the crowd to “go vote.”
The crowd gave Robinson a long standing ovation as he closed, choking down these final words:
“There are three things I’d say to Matt: ‘Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. And Matt, welcome home.’ Amen.”
Earlier in the service, Matthew Shepard’s father, Dennis Shepard, thanked those in the cathedral and others watching the service online for “helping us take Matt home.”
“It is so important we now have a home for Matt,” Shepard, 69, said. “A home that others can visit. A home that is safe from haters.”
The father recalled his son’s love for others.
“Matt was blind, just like this beautiful house of worship,” Dennis Shepard said. “He did not see skin color. He did not see religion. He did not see sex orientation. All he saw was a chance to have another friend.”
For Shepard’s family and friends, the interment of his ashes served as a celebration of his life that wasn’t possible at the tumultuous time of his 1998 murder, when anti-gay protesters screamed at funeralgoers. Tensions were so high then that his father wore a bulletproof vest under his blue suit.
Before the start of the service at 10 a.m., the line of people bundled in heavy coats snaked across the grounds of the massive church.
Abigail Mocettini, a 24-year-old who grew up in Boise, Idaho, said Shepard’s death loomed “in the background” for young people coming out, “especially in the West.”
“As we were coming out, this affected our parents and informed their fears,” Mocettini, now a District of Columbia resident, said as she prepared to enter the cathedral. “Acknowledging queer history is a thing that needs to be respected.”
Mocettini said attacks against members of the LGBTQ community could still happen today.
There were no signs of protesters outside the cathedral.
One woman waiting in line, Rebecca York, 22, said she learned in a college course that Shepard’s killing was a “landmark” for changing the conversation about anti-gay hate.
Shepard’s case “hit close to home because Matthew was someone everyone could relate to,” York said. “Because of that they were able to make great strides.”
Some close to Shepard say even with his fame — his killing is the subject of many books, shows and one of the most-produced plays in the country, “The Laramie Project” — the idea of his interment in the prominent cathedral feels momentous. Also this week, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History received a donation from the family of some of his belongings.
“We’re all awed. It’s just very humbling to see the Smithsonian and the cathedral recognize the power of Matthew’s story all these years later,” said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which advocates in particular for gay youths, including through hate-crimes legislation. Marsden was a friend of Shepard’s at the time of the killing. “Especially for those who knew him, this is both something we never wanted and never expected. It affirms what we’ve always thought, that his story is powerful and inspires people.”