“Matthew the Great”

Editor’s note: For the last year or so, we have had the pleasure of communicating with the Queer Studies department at the University of Kassel in Germany. Andreas has been updating us regularly about the celebrations they have had in honor of Matt. It’s incredible to hear about his story has touched so many from all corners of the globe. Below is Andreas’ recount of the last year of celebrations.

“Matthew the Great”: Matt Shepard still remains unforgotten in Kassel (Germany) * report on the occasion of the anniversary of Matt Shepard’s 40th birthday, celebrated at the University of Kassel (29. 08. — 01. 12. 2016) *

The past year 2016 saw the 40th birthday of Matt Shepard (* 1976, † 1998) on December 1st. Just under 19 years ago, Matt Shepard was assassinated in Laramie (Wyoming, USA, 07. 10. 1998) because he was gay. In the meantime Shepard has not only become one of the central unifying figures of the gay history of the “fin de siecle” — the end of the 20th century — but he also has become a part of “the core of traditions” of the Queer Department’s self-positioning here at the University of Kas-sel (“Autonomes schwul trans* queer-Referat”, Nora-Platiel-Straße 9, 34127 Kassel, Germany). Without any doubt Matt Shepard remains still unforgotten in Kassel. This fact for example is witnessed by Matt’s portrait, hanging in the reception area of the Department as well as by several books about his life and legacy, archived in the Department’s library. In addition also some movies about his story can bee borrowed in the film archive of Kassel’s Queer Department (“The Matthew Shepard Story”, “The Laramie Project” and “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine”).

That this “Wyoming country boy with braces” — in Europe well known for his preference for checkered lumberjack shirts, Heineken beer, the smell of Paul Gaultier Cologne within his shock of dark blond hair and of course his interest in linguistic diversity and arts — became the embodiment of what it means to be a young gay man at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, more than 5000 miles east-ward from Wyoming, thus here in Germany, has to do with the central role that Matt’s personality currently plays in the history and in the self-image of the Queer Department’s community. If there is any embodiment for “gay youngness” in the sense of varied phenomena, in the sense of an existential meaning, then to us here in Kassel it is him, it is Matt Shepard: his solicitude of education and refined taste for arts, his political awareness and support of human rights, he as a globetrotter and as an owner of a sense of world experience, his knowledge of different languages and cultures and last but not least he as a traveler in the Middle East (particular Saudi Arabia). In the visage of this dark blond boy with dreamy eyes and his braces decorated smile the allegory of the gay identity of Kassel Universities Queer Department manifests itself. This fact requires an explanation almost 19 years after Matt Shepard’s death in Fort Collins (Colorado, USA, 12. 10. 1998).

Matt Shepard was not only the educated cultural enthusiast who traveled Europe from one end to the other, he was not only the linguistic genius who spoke five languages by the age of 21 (English, German, Italian, French, Arabic), he was not only the future human rights activist who cared for homeless people in Denver (Colorado, USA, 1997/1998). He was not only the traveler in the Middle East who knew the political conflicts and crises in the Middle East like not many others did: Matt Shepard embodied all this together and much, much more. The veneration that still is awarded to Matt in some regions of Europe — particular in Northern Hessen and its capital Kassel — can be explained by the queer-historical experience of his school attendance in Montagnola at the Lake of Lugano in Switzerland, near the Italian border, between 1993 and 1995. Remarkably Montagnola in Ticino is a “fateful place” of German literary history of the first magnitude. It’s not only the place where the famous German author Hermann Hesse (* 1877, † 1962) spent most of his life, but the little town on the peninsula of Collina d’Oro had been also the refuge of Nobel Prize winner in Literature Thomas Mann (* 1875, † 1955) and his wife Katharina Pringsheim (* 1883, † 1980) for a couple of weeks in March/April 1933, after both spouses had to leave Munich and flee from the Nazis. After living in Küst-nacht near Zurich (both Switzerland) for some years (1933–1938), Thomas Mann and his wife moved to the US into exile: first to Princeton (New Jersey, USA) in the neighbourhood of Albert Einstein (* 1879, † 1955) and later to Pacific Palisades (California, USA) near Los Angeles, supported by Agnes E. Meyer (* 1887, † 1970) and her Husband Eugene Meyer (* 1875, † 1959), the owner of the “Washington Post” and the first President of the World Bank.

Likewise, the Palais in which the Manns where guests of Hermann Hesse, is located only a few hundred meters away from the school Palais of “The American School in Switzerland” (TASIS) where Matt Shepard lived and studied during the 1990s. Interestingly this interlocking of the history of German literature on the one hand and the presence of Matt Shepard in that “mythical place” at the Lake of Lu-gano on the other hand describes Shepard as a Germanist; as an philanthropic poet in German, as an expert of German literature from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (* 1749, † 1832) to Hermann Hesse. For this reason Matt Shepard became a part of the history of the German-speaking gay communities in Europe not only in a virtual way (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg) but also in a very real way. When his German verses come to our ears, they bring back to us the memories of his beautiful face, of his braces decorated smile and of this unique mixture of school-learned German and an American accent, flavoured with a hint of Swiss German. His verses are being sung up to the present day within our walls.

Shepard — interested in varied studies of languages, including German, Italian and French — took the account of his presence in Europe as an opportunity to explore our “Old Continent” in the years 1993 to 1995. His many travels took him to Italy (for example Rome, Florence and Venice: “the country where the lemons bloom — das Land, wo die Zitronen blüh’n”), to Germany (inter alia Munich), to Great Bri-tain (inter alia London), to Austria and Hungary (Budapest). Matt who always conversed fluently in four (!) languages (German, Italian, French, Arabic) established on this occasion numerous contacts in numerous places all over Europe, contacts, that extended far beyond the actual peer group of his schoolmates at “The American School in Switzerland” (TASIS). As a result of that Shepard became a poet in German and Italian and wrote some rhymes which are still known today in Germany: a context that seems to complement his fame here in the “Old World”.

Born in 1976 in Casper (Wyoming, USA) as the first son of the safety engineer Dennis Shepard (* 1949) who worked in the oil industry and his wife Judy Shepard (* 1952, née Peck), he first attended Crest Hill Elementary School, afterwards Dean Morgan Junior High School in Casper and subsequently Patrona County High School, his senior High School ibidem, ere he changed to “The American School in Switzerland” in Montagnola in 1993, where he passed his High School exam in May 1995.

To his person was also linked a new gaze on the “gay youth” in the eyes of the queer audience in Germany since the 1990s. While during the 1970s and 1980s the focus concerning the view on gay youths had been on “underdogs” like hustlers and drug users, Matt Shepard presented himself — now during the 1990s — in a very self-confident way as a member of an educational oriented, wealthy bourgeois environment amongst his family at home in Casper as well as overseas in Saudi Arabia. Dennis Shepard appears here as a loving and caring father and husband who openly accepts and supports his gay son; Judy Shepard appears as the ideal mother and as a friend for life. The heartrending story of Matt’s camping experiences together with his younger brother Logan Shepard (* 1981) and his grandfather Harry Shepard (* 1920, † 1998) also fits in with this picture. Harry Shepard taught Matt and Logan horseback riding, fishing and hunting: All of this took place in the open air and in the middle of the prairie of Wyoming. Matt and Logan, Judy and Dennis, together with grandmother Ruth Shepard (née Brodine, * 1920, † 2014) and grand-father Harry, that was “almost like in a fairy tale” in the eyes of many German recipients; for many young gay man against the background of rejection, repudiation and allegations of their parents a completely new experience.

Even the image of the “pious Shepard”, the sight of Matt as an acolyte in his church community, that meanwhile almost legendary St. Mark’s Church in Casper, fits in with this picture. Yet another of these strange correlations in Shepard’s biography: So does the American Episcopal Church as the American branch of the Anglican Church of Europe maintain an altar fellowship with the Old Catholic Church in Germany, the same liberal and queer-friendly church that had been the first religious community in Germany to enable the consecration of gay and lesbian couples in it’s congregations during the 1990s.

All these aspects together brought about a gaze on Matt Shepard here in Kassel that is guided by the image of Matt as one of the rare personalities in history which succeeded in letting their names become “a familiar type” in the perception of the public. As well as the name “Goethe” triggers in the current audience very specific associations, gay and bisexual men in the US as well as gay men in Germany do connect very specific characteristics with Matt’s name: linguistic genius, educated cultural enthusiast, world citizen, future politician, socially committed democrat, human rights activist and art lover. Shepard’s aesthetic style, the image of the slim boy wearing a checkered shirt and braces and smelling of Paul Gaultier Cologne, created around the year 1995 a distinctive outfit that became the trademark of this educated cultural enthusiast and cosmopolitan as an unique life style. In those days that “Shepard style” stood for all the properties of his personality: for linguistic diversity, for artistic sensibility and for the “scent of the great wide world”. Even the image of the “animal lover” Shepard has it’s place either in that kaleidoscope of characteristics: Matt’s cat Clayton has become a legend as well as his master.

Against this extremely varied background Matt’s 40th birthday (01. 12. 2016) obliged the Queer Department of the University of Kassel to festive celebrations in order to honor this extraordinary feast day. The concept of celebrations came from the idea of a cycle of five events, opened in a solemn manner on August 29th by the performance of Moisés Kaufman’s (* 1963) theatre playThe Laramie Project” in German and on an open air stage (odeon of the amphitheatre of the University of Kassel). The roles of Kaufman’s play were performed by members of the Queer Department’s community who delivered this stage play — in Kassel almost unknown until August 2016 — to the audience, consisting of about 100 people. The performance of the play was directed by the German theatre scholar and dramaturge Heiko Griesel (* 1968).

In November 1998, only four weeks after the assassination of Matt Shepard, a theatre company under the special guidance of the dramaturge Moisés Kaufman traveled to Laramie (Wyoming, USA). In 1998/1999 the theatre makers conducted many interviews with various contemporary witnesses on site: friends of Matt Shepard, police officers, doctors, priests, ministers and inhabitants of the town of Laramie. Several citizens of Laramie got a chance to speak from various perspectives and under the impression of different sensitivities. This did result in a very compact approach to Laramie and its residents under the impact of the murder of a well-known personage of queer history. The performance was followed by a panel discussion in the odeon of the amphitheatre of Kassel’s University which raised many interesting questions on the part of the audience. A particular moving moment was reached when a lesbian lady from Denver who today lives in a village near Kassel stood up and told the rest of the audience and the amateur actors with tears in her eyes about her experiences as a contemporary witness of the events in connection with the assassination of Matt Shepard in America (in 1998/1999).

The theatre performance was followed on August 30th by a workshop under the title “Hate crimes against queer people in society”. With the help of film material, worksheets, various texts and short presentations, based on the “historical” hate crime against Matt Shepard, we took different forms of violence against queer people and it’s historical aspects into account. Examples that might be of special interest were the following:

  • short presentations on the history of homophobia from Antiquity until the present time;
  • worksheets on hate crimes, their reasons and reporting structures;
  • film examples (inter alia Brandon Teena [* 1972, † 1993], Matt Shepard and Tyrah Hunter [* 1970, † 1995]);
  • development of solution possibilities in society by the example of the “hate crime legislation” in the USA, supported by the President of the United States Barack Obama (* 1961);
  • presentation of the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation based in Denver (Colorado, USA) and founded by Matt Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, on December 01st 1998.

This event was followed by a theme night on September 1st on the subject of homophobia and solution possibilities in society under the title “From Laramie to Kassel”. Different accesses to the topic of homophobia in society should guarantee to the participants of the theme night to be able to look more clearly at the contemporary situation in Laramie (1998). Who were Shepard’s murderers? How did the assassination of Matt affect the societies in the US and in Europe? Which reactions and solution possibilities were offered by mourners and activists in the years beyond 1998? Are these offers still adequate possibilities for action for us today? Which options do we have currently here in Kassel and Germany? Because Shepard’s personality has met with a broad response not only in the field of painting but also of musical creation, poetry, dramaturgy and cinematic art during the last 18 years, we committed ourselves to the artistic reception of Matt Shepard and his life story as well. We listened to pieces of music about Matt Shepard, we watched film clips and learned about paintings and poems which deal with Matt and his story (amongst others a German poem from a young student who admires Matt and wrote this little piece of literary history in 1999).

The central ceremony of commemoration on October 7th was characterized by the first-time performance of Michele Josue’s documentary film “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” here in Kassel and also by the recitation of five poems from Lesléa Newman’s (* 1956) volume of poems “October Mourning. A Song for Matthew Shepard” in one of the University’s lecture halls. The audience appeared to be delighted at Josue’s movie and greeted Newman’s odes with long applause. A lecture about Matt Shepard’s life story and his various life stages in America, Europe and the Middle East preceded the presentation of the documentary. The literature reading was followed by a lively panel discussion subsequent to the film screening and the presentation of the poems. Between the movie screening and the reading a break of about half an hour took place in which the visitors could help themselves to a buffet composed of different cakes, tea, coffee and lemonade.

The definite highlight of the series of events was the actual birthday celebration on December 1st, 2016 in the premises of the Queer Department, starting with an oyster breakfast in the morning. In the evening a champagne reception took place and in this context a painting which had been commissioned by the Electors of the Queer Department was introduced to the audience as a special gift: a canvas by the local artist Martin Thon that shows the coat of arms of the Shepard Family. That peace of art was sent to the Matthew Shepard Foundation (Denver, Colorado, USA) after the end of our series of events by air mail as a specific sign of our esteem and appreciation for Matt Shepard and for the whole noble Shepard Family.

In addition an exhibition under the title “On the trails of Matt Shepard” took place in the rooms of the Queer Department in the evening of December 1st. The exhibition displayed an exemplary insight into the history of the Shepard Family — amongst other things a family tree of the Shepard Family since 1794 was presented — as well as pictures and exhibition objects concerning Matt Shepard’s life story. We saw photos of Matt in his family in Casper (Wyoming, USA), we saw Matt’s parental home (4730 South Oak Street in Casper, Wyoming, USA), the place of longing for all “Sheparderians” (admirers, followers of Matt Shepard), we saw pictures of his church community St. Mark’s, we saw TASIS in Montagnola (Switzerland), we saw Matt on the road in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia and finally we saw the places of his studies in the United States after 1995: Catawba College in Salisbury (North Carolina, USA) in 1995/1996, Raleigh (North Carolina, USA) in 1996, Casper College in Casper, Matt’s hometown, where he studied and lived with Judy Shepard in 1996/1997, and finally we recognized Denver in Colorado (USA), the center of Matt’s life in 1997/1998. Here too it was that the legendary friendship between Matt Shepard and Romaine Patterson (* 1978) became effective and found the place of it’s sensible fulfillment in Diderich’s Café. Those who wish to gain more detailed information about this extraordinary amity should read Romaine Patterson’s book “The whole world was watching. Living in the light of Matthew Shepard”. This monograph brings back to life the atmosphere and the spirit of Denver in the 1990s in a congenial way.

Although the series of events concerning Matt Shepard’s 40th birthday is now behind us, Matt Shepard’s legacy as the personification of the spirit of Kassel’s gay community still remains unchanged in the current year 2017. Matt Shepard, this great gay witness of the fin de siècle — the end of the 20th century, — is silent now for almost 19 years. To give him a voice again, to bring him back into the concert of autonomous cultural contributors, that is an affair of the heart for the current Queer Department of the University of Kassel. There will be of course another birthday celebration in honor of Matt on December 1st, 2017. The members of the Department’s community will come together in the premises of the Department in the afternoon of December 1st. They will cut a birthday cake with 21 candles on it, they will drink one glass of wine for each stage of Matt’s life (Casper, Montagnola, Salisbury, Raleigh, Casper, Denver, Laramie) and to accentuate all of this in a solemn manner they will recite some of his poems. They will tell stories from his life — rich in anecdotes – they will spread incense in memory of his genius and finally they will go home a little bit tipsy — like every year since 1998. And while Matt is known in the US especially as a “poster child” for hate crimes, at the same time another tradition in Europe makes the round: it’s the tradition of Germans and Swiss men who come together every year on December 1st to honor the memory of that great German- and Italian-speaking cultural enthusiast and traveler in the Middle East named Matthew Shepard. Also his epithet “the Great” awarded him only the Europeans. This epithet is inspired by the image of the philanthropic linguistic genius and cultured citizen who stood up for homeless people in Denver, who loved the theatre and the arts, who composed poems in English, German and Italian, who traveled Europe from one end to the other and who knew the Middle East like no other. And under the particular focus of Matt’s life achievement, the motto that the Queer Department of the University of Kassel has chosen for it’s promotional video in 2016 appears now to come true:

  • his life: a legend;
  • his deeds: inimitable;
  • his legacy: immortal!

Text by: Andreas Mohr (Queer Department of the University of Kassel, Germany)