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Matthew Shepard's friend reflects on his life, death and legacy

PRIDE: Matthew Shepard's friend reflects on his life, death and legacy
Posted at 8:54 PM, Jun 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-03 10:46:50-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — It was early October 1998.

"If I'm putting myself in that place, the tears come very readily because it was so shocking," said Michele Josue.

Josue was in her first college apartment when her sister called. She told her to turn on the news.


"I saw on the news that Matt had been attacked and he was in a coma and he was beaten to within inches of his life," she said.

Matthew Shepard -- a gay college student at the University of Wyoming -- was tied to a fence and left in freezing temperatures. Six days later, he died. Michele was Matthew Shepard's friend.

"The world called him Matthew but we always referred to him as Matt," said Josue.

Matt and Michele went to high school together, both in the theater. Michele said they were often paired together for auditions because of their height -- Matt was just 5-feet 2-inches tall. Michele remembered Matt as giving and kind, intelligent, with a biting sense of humor and a curiosity about the world. When Michele knew Matt, he had not come out as gay. But Michele said when Matt was killed, he almost immediately became the poster child for anti-LGBTQ hate and violence. The reasons behind why, she said, are complex.

"Matt was a white, very small, non-threatening looking boy next door and people saw in him their own sons, their friends, their neighbors," she said. "So he touched a nerve across the country and I would say around the world."

Michele said Matt Shepard's death woke people up and inspired a generation of advocates for compassion, understanding and acceptance.

Matt Shepard's legacy is cemented in legislation, spearheaded by his parents.

When he was killed in 1998, his vicious murder wasn't considered a hate crime.

In 2004, ABC's 20/20 investigated claims that drugs may have played a role in the killing. But in the years after his death, Shepard's parents made it their mission to expand federal hate crime laws to include sexual orientation. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law by President Obama in October of 2009. Michele said while it is an imperfect law, it is important.

His killers remain behind bars.

"It communicates something that LGBTQ people are worthy of protection and worthy of living in dignity and without this tremendous bias and violence that they face a lot," she said.

Michele said while her friend inspired and effected so much change, she hopes people will see him as more than a symbol - but as a person worthy of life and love.

"He was just a young man who had an extraordinary potential, who really struggled in life sometimes, but really had and effected so much joy in all those around him. It is a true tragedy that he is not with us," she said.

Matt's Dad echoing Michele's words when they found a home for his son's remains 20 years after his death at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

"Matt was blind. He did not see color, religion, or sexual orientation. All he saw was a chance to have another friend," he said.

Michele produced a film about Matt's life called "Matthew Shepard is a friend of mine."

In October, it will be 23 years since Matt was killed -- two years longer than he lived. His story still touching hearts and minds and inspiring lasting change.