THE BLOG
07/22/2016 03:24 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2017

Matthew Shepard, On My Mind

I had the beautiful opportunity to perform in The Laramie Project during my first year of college. The play -- since made into a motion picture and based on true events -- chronicles the aftermath of the torture and death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. Matthew's death rocked the country as one of the highest-profile hate crimes to have been committed on the basis of sexual orientation.

Crimes committed because of sexual orientation, at the time, were not prosecutable as hate crimes.

The New York-based Tectonic Theater Project made the decision to embed itself in Laramie and chronicle the tales of the neighbors, townspeople, and court proceedings that eventually became central to the fabric of Matthew Shepard's story.

Performing in this play was demanding, troubling, and transformative. Each actor played multiple characters in rotation and had to adapt to the particular types of pain each of them carried. I was a detective, interrogating suspected murderers; I was a lonely, gay man, looking fondly upon a town parade I knew I could never join; I was the state's governor, urging for peace; I was a Catholic priest, trying to deal with faith and fairness. I was, most importantly though, the CEO of the hospital Matthew died in. I spoke to the press. I announced his death to the world.

I don't claim to know the experiences of the Shepard family and those who were close to Matthew. I do, however, know what it feels like to speak their words and use them to draw the same honesty out of others that you have to demand of yourself.

Here's why it matters now. Here's why we should never forget it.

President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act -- known simply as the Matthew Shepard Act -- into law in 2009. The loophole about sexual orientation not being prosecutable as a hate crime? It finally eliminated it.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence -- now the Republican Nominee for Vice President of the United States -- voted against the passage of the bill when he was a member of Congress. The legislation was included in a larger defense-spending bill, and this is what Governor Pence had to say about it:

"It is deeply offensive...to pile so-called 'hate crimes' legislation onto a bill that authorizes critical resources for our troops. Hate crimes legislation is antithetical to the First Amendment, unnecessary and will have a chilling effect on religious freedom. The president has used his position as commander in chief to advance a radical social agenda..."

This response isn't new. For decades, we've had factions of Congress engage, at every turn, in tactics that limit access to equality -- and the Republican Party has now validated some of the most outlandishly bigoted and repressive beliefs about the LGBT community. Governor Pence believes in, and supports, conversion therapy. He has advocated for federal funds that are intended to combat HIV/AIDS to instead fund conversion therapy practices. Matthew Shepard was HIV positive.

Governor Pence believes that the enactment of hate crimes legislation -- which stands to protect social groups targeted by violence -- infringes on our right to free speech. The Matthew Shepard Act deals with violence, not speech. It doesn't infringe on any group's ability to verbally express their opinions about what it may mean to be gay. Governor Pence shouldn't be too worried -- the Westboro Baptist Church is alive and well.

This story -- the story of a young man in such a pivotal time in his life -- is a story that we fear. We fear it because it could happen at any turn to members of our own community. It's a story that makes us question our actions and our judgment; it makes us feel uneasy about the feelings we may harbor inside ourselves.

It's relatable. People understood that this could be their own neighbor; people understood that this could be their own son. I can only imagine the mothers and fathers across this country that took a deeper look inside of themselves about the future of their children and the power of their love for them.

The Matthew Shepard Act is merely one of many laws that have invoked the ire of those opposed to the LGBT community. In that sense, it isn't unique. Governor Pence wasn't the only member of Congress to vote against the bill, either. But, while all pieces of legislation include people and stories that propel them, the story of Matthew Shepard will always remain heartbreaking. I know many Matthews. I know the mothers, the fathers, and the families of young men and women who are struggling with the consequences of being gay in this country.

Buy the script. Read it for yourself. Speak those words aloud, and see how you feel. Try not to be moved to tears; try not to have a knot in your stomach; try not to see that each and every one of us knows of a young gay man or woman who could have been murdered in 1998, and who could still face unspeakable violence today.

There's a lot to talk about when it comes to Mike Pence. We've already spent thirteen months talking about Donald Trump. What we're forgetting, however, is that there are stories to be told, and that our country is nothing without them. I won't let Matthew Shepard be forgotten. I won't let his senseless murder be forgotten. If I can write every day to do justice to that promise, then I will.

Imagine being the CEO of the hospital that Matthew died in. Leave yourselves with his words that I, myself, spoke on stage:

Um, and then we started to get people sending us e-mails and letters. And most of them were generally very kind. But I did get this one. This guy wrote me and said, "Do you cry like a baby on TV for all of your patients or just the faggots?" And as I told you before, homosexuality is not a lifestyle with which I agree. Um, but having been thrown into this...I guess I didn't understand the magnitude with which some people hate.

Compare that to the words of Governor Pence.

We have work to do.