10/12/2013 04:48 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Defending Matt

Michele Josue/Vimeo

Fifteen years ago, just past midnight on Oct. 12, 1998, my dear friend Matt Shepard died from a vicious anti-gay attack at the hands of confessed homophobe Aaron McKinney and his accomplice, Russell Henderson. Matt's death opened the world's eyes, including my own, to the hate and inequality that the LGBT community struggles against to this very day.

I was 19 when Matt died, and his loss was devastating for me. It's a hard thing to understand, but as his story became an international news event, my heartbreak and sense of loss only grew as my friend Matt was replaced by "Matthew Shepard," a historic figure and icon who will forever be associated with unspeakable violence and hate. And as the media stripped my friend of his humanity, I made a promise to myself that when I was emotionally and artistically ready, I would share with the world who Matt really was, in the only way that I knew how: through film.

So three years ago, in 2010, after close to a year of research and intense discussion, I, along with a very small team, set off to make Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, a film that would recapture the Matt whom the world barely knew. Over the course of these years, I traveled all across the U.S., as well as Switzerland and Morocco, to film important people and pivotal locations from Matt's life. We made numerous trips to Laramie, Wyo., where we photographed evidence from Matt's attack. We interviewed the exemplary law officials who were involved in his case, including Undersheriff Rob DeBree, who painstakingly walked us through every detail of that fateful evening's events. We filmed everyone from Matt's parents to his closest friends, to teachers and mentors, to the bartender who last saw Matt and his murderers at the Fireside Bar on Oct. 6, 1998.

The people I chose to be featured in Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, many of whom are also friends of mine, all had close relationships with Matt and knew him at various points in his all-too-brief life. Collectively they construct a truly encompassing and intimate portrait of Matt as he really was: a complex, sensitive, gay young man who worked hard to find peace and his place in the world. Through their vivid recollections of Matt and his joys and struggles, they reveal a young person, struggling to come of age, who is no different from any of us.

Though Matt's death did open my eyes to a world that could be so hostile and cruel, in many ways the opportunity to tell Matt's story has also showed me how incredibly good, beautiful, and just the world can be. Matt's story includes exemplary police work, tireless activism, and the legislative victory of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. His story shows us how love overcomes hate, and mercy surpasses cruelty and intolerance. Finally, there is the power of "Matthew Shepard," Matt's legacy, to inspire current and future generations to be proud of who they are and live their lives with courage, compassion, and forgiveness.

As a filmmaker and as Matt's friend, I feel extraordinary gratitude for being able to tell his incredible story, and a tremendous obligation to depict him honestly, as the flawed yet wonderful human being he was. For this reason, it is heartbreaking to me that the dehumanization and victimization of Matt continues to this day in the form of outrageous conspiracy theories and disgraceful character assassinations, which can only be motivated by a reckless opportunism and a blatant disregard for any sort of acceptable journalistic standards.

Now more than ever, our film stands as a witness to what actually happened on the tragic night of Oct. 6, 1998, and, more importantly, to the innately good, kind, and big-hearted person Matt was. Our film and the people in it all bear witness to the simple fact that Matt Shepard was a good person, an amazing person with a bright future who tragically fell victim to the ignorance and hatred that persists in our society today.

As a storyteller, I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to tell Matt's story in the honest, sensitive, and dignified way that it deserves to be told. As Matt's friend, I am forever grateful to have this opportunity to stand up for him, alongside his family and friends and countless supporters around the world, as he is not here to stand up for himself.

Check out the trailer for Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine:

For more on Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, visit the film's official website, its Facebook page, and its page on the Matthew Shepard Foundation website.