Looking Back at BTMAD17

by Alyssa Sileo

Another October has arrived, which means it is the season for The Matthew Shepard Foundation’s Bear to Make a Difference events that commemorate the anniversary of Matthew’s passing and remind us all the importance of our fight to erase hate. This month, I’m reminiscing my family’s first trip to Denver last year, and the dream-like night in which I was honored with The Spirit of Matthew Award. The members and friends of this organization have taught me so much about what it means to be an advocate, so being able to thank them, chat with them, and give them big hugs was the experience of a lifetime.

The BTMAD festivities began as soon as I got to the city. The first night, I got a double whammy of a gay culture experience: my first time in a gay bar and my first drag/burlesque show! (Don’t worry, this underage gal drank a Shirley Temple and nothing more.) I met the MSF staff for the first time as well as the Shepards and my fellow Spirit of Matthew honoree, Jaimie Wilson, and cheered on the performers as we raised money for MSF.

The second night was the Gala — and when you search the definition of “a night to remember”, you will find this event. First off, I must confirm the fact that yes, us queer people have the best fashion sense. We experienced incredible addresses from members of MSF, and I got to accept my award and declare to myself and the world that I will never stop fighting in Matthew’s name.

My third and final day in Denver is when I said “see you soon” to all of the people I met while having breakfast in town.

I will never forget meeting the Shepards — their warmth, wittiness, and passion is to be reckoned with. Throughout this weekend I also engaged with so many advocates who are using so many clever ways to make loving statements. One of the most striking moments was when I got to meet Julie Chavez, the founder of the jewelry line Chavez for Charity. I purchased one of her bracelets that benefitted the MSF three years before, and that’s how I first heard about Matthew’s story. Hearing that she read my story online and also learning that she is a Jersey girl too was amazing!

On the ride from the airport, I got to take a picture of the Denver high school that was one of the first to join the LPP. I held my Laramie script tight as we drove through the Denver sights, thinking about how integral this beautiful city is to the queer community. During our trip my family even got to take a bus ride to the town of Boulder. Seeing the mountains while listening to my favorite music was one of my favorite moments of the whole weekend. I remember so clearly sitting in my bed on the morning we had to leave and pouting. I kept on repeating to my family “I don’t want to leave this city!”

It’s my belief that this town is so beautiful because of the beautiful people in it. I’m hoping I can return soon, especially since I can’t make it to this year’s gala.

To this years’ honorees, Adam Rippon, Lesléa Newman, Chance Mitchell, and Justin Nelson: thank you for giving your heart to our community. And especially to the youth winners of the Spirit of Matthew Award: every day, I am proud of you. I (and so many others) are eternally grateful that you are carrying the torch our queer ancestors passed onto us. I hope you all enjoy your time in Denver. I know you will fall in love with the city, and I know you will fall in love all over again with the incredible figures of MSF.

Have a safe trip to Denver, and send me pictures!

About the Author:

Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the cannon.