May 24, 2015 - A personal story
The theme of personal connection has being presenting itself a lot in my life over the past few weeks. Connection and community are the driving forces behind The Stranger Project. They always have been, even before I really knew what this was going to be, or become. Lately though, it’s been at the forefront of my mind and experience, somewhat intensely.
I’ve been working on a couple of ventures related to expansion and future development of this project. While doing some research, the discussion of the impact of a story being that much greater, when there is a personal connection, has either being mentioned, implied, or manifested.
One story was about a young man who hadn’t discussed his sexuality with his mother. He was raised in a religious family, in a small, conservative town in Texas. This young man hosted a potluck dinner at his home and invited a number of his friends who were also gay. His mother arrived unannounced, and joined the group for dinner.
While preparing food in the kitchen, the host could hear his friends sharing with his mother their own stories of coming out to their parents. Some stories had happy endings, and others were not so happy. Some were embraced by their parents, others faced rejection. After dinner, when all the guests had left, the mother initiated a conversation with her son. She told him that she enjoyed meeting his friends, implied that she knew he was gay, and told him that it was okay with her. She loved him just the same. What had made a difference for her was hearing the personal stories of his friends.
In 1998, a young man by the name of Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one year old college student in Laramie, Wyoming, was brutally beaten and left to die, tied to a fence on a cold dark prairie.
Some eighteen hours later, a passerby found Matthew and called the police. The first officer to arrive on the scene spoke of the ropes around Matthew’s wrists being tied so tightly that she had difficulty getting a pocket knife underneath them to cut him free. He had been pistol-whipped beyond human recognition. Only where his tears had washed away the blood on his face, could she see the colour of his flesh. Matthew spent five days in hospital, never regaining consciousness, before passing away on October 12th, 1998. He died because he was gay.
His story made international headlines and certainly resonated with me, personally. It so easily could have been me, someone I knew, or a friend of mine. One year later, on the first anniversary of his death, I clipped out a small article that ran in a local newspaper. It spoke of a candle-light vigil being held in remembrance. To remind people of the importance of never forgetting what happened to Matthew. I taped that reminder to my fridge, and looked at it every day.
There have been books, documentaries and even a play written about what happened that night. ‘The Laramie Project’ is based on a collection of interviews with people who were connected to the story, the one that the world was hearing of Matthew Shepard. I have cried every time I’ve seen the play. Every year I’ve acknowledged the anniversary of his passing. I’ve taken to using the anniversary of that week he spent in hospital, to remind my friends of the horrors and torture he endured.
Matthew’s parents Judy and Dennis Shepard, have worked tirelessly on behalf of the foundation they created in Matthew’s name.
About three years ago, I heard of a documentary being made about Matthew. This one was going to be different. It was not about Matthew Shepard, the young man who is now named as part of an anti-hate crime bill signed into US law by President Obama in 2009. The documentary, “Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine” is the story of Matt as he was to his family, and his friends. The story of a young man with hopes, dreams, ambitions, wants and desires. A young man who wanted "to change the world,” without knowing exactly how he was going to do that.
One of Matt’s childhood friends, Michele Josue, went on to become a filmmaker. Michele wrote and directed the documentary. She launched a fund-raising campaign to finance the production. I did everything I could to support it. It helped me to connect to the story in a way I hadn’t imagined I would. It made me feel I was doing my part to carry forward Matt’s dream of changing the world.
In time, Michele and I started to correspond. At first it was about the t-shirt and DVD I was going to get for contributing to the documentary. Then we started to send messages to each other on Facebook. I shared my personal connection and feelings about what had happened to Matt. About my want to do what I could to carry his voice forward. Michele would always respond, and update me a bit about the project.
In the three years from the first fund-raising campaign, to seeing the documentary, Michele I have become Facebook ‘friends.’ Sharing bits of my own story with her allowed me to feel connected to Michele, and in turn, to Matt.
The team behind “Matt Shepard Is A Friend of Mine” have also been very supportive of The Stranger Project. I’ve been grateful for, and humbled by the support. After the documentary being completed, I waited over a year for it to screen here in Vancouver. A friend in Amsterdam had gone to a screening there, and met Michele, sending me a photograph of the two of them. Another friend in Toronto had seen the documentary there, and also sent me a photograph of her and Michele.
Last Friday, May 22nd, was Harvey Milk Day, in memory of Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist assassinated in 1978. It was also the day I finally got to see 'Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine' on a theatre screen. And, I finally met Michele. We hugged like friends who hadn’t seen one another for years, even though we had never met in person. We had our personal connection. After watching the documentary, we made arrangements to meet the next day for coffee.
I spent two hours on Saturday with Michele. We spoke of Matt, who Michele told me, was never a stranger to anyone, because he was so outgoing. He loved people and was always the centre of any group. He spoke openly and easily with everyone. We spoke of Michele’s experience of living through the tragic murder of her good friend. We chatted about her life, going to film school, moving to Los Angeles, meeting the man who would become her husband.
We discussed The Stranger Project, my diagnosis of depression, and how that, in part, motivated me to start this project. We talked of mental health, of stigma, peoples individual perceptions, and personal growth. We discussed healing, and living with emotional pain.
We shared our experiences of being storytellers; the need for personal connection, not only as storytellers but in order to be healthy people. There was laughter and tears. We learned from each other. We recognized our deep sensitivities in regards to other people. For two hours, there was not a moment of silence. I know this is just the beginning.
On January 01st, 2014 when I first started this project, I wasn’t sure what it was for, what it would be, or how I was going to present the stories I was listening too. I just knew I needed something that would help me leave my house every single day, and force me to make connections.
I soon realized that going out and connecting with people was helping me to feel better. As the project grew in popularity, I became aware that I could share stories of people that might not otherwise have a voice. People were responding to and identifying with, the stories of everyday people. While we each have our own journey and experiences, the common thread is that we all have a story. It’s the personal connections that make the stories come to life, that make them relatable. It’s the personal connection that makes us care, that moves us to laughter, or tears. Sometimes both.
The more I share stories and the outcomes of connection, the more integral to my well-being it becomes.
All those years ago, when a young man named Matthew, so far removed from my world, was murdered, it touched me profoundly. I dove into the story. I felt moved, and I wanted to know more. I wanted a personal connection. I wanted to do what I could to carry Matt’s voice forward, to make change happen.
I still want to do what I can to never let people forget what happened that night, seventeen years ago. To never forget a young man who dreamt of changing the world.
And now, through the power of the internet, used wisely, I have connected with Michele. This personal connection solidifies, yet again, my commitment to working towards shifting perspectives. To changing opinions through the sharing of voices of those who might otherwise not be heard.
When we hear the personal stories, when we make a personal connection, we can, in fact, change the world. I am humbled, overwhelmed with gratitude and steeped in humility through my experiences of the last two weeks. We don’t always realize at the time, yet sometimes we do; my life has changed. #notastranger