Art

The ascension of Matthew Shepard

A painter examines the aftermath of a murder motived by hate, 20 years later.

 

“The Ascension of Matthew Shepard” by Carl Grauer challenges traditionally exclusive religious imagery by placing Shepard, the victim of a hate crime, in a place of reverence.
Carl Grauer

In the painting, Matthew Shepard’s hands are finally free. The length of rope that once lashed him to the buck and rail fence drapes loosely around his waist; the caked blood that made his body look like a scarecrow to a passing cyclist is now a gleaming, rich red. He rises into the air surrounded by angels, each bearing the face of Saint Sebastian — patron saint of those who conceal their identities to avoid persecution. The angels’ wings stand tall and arched, like the wire and cloth wings Shepard’s friends wore at his funeral in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, to block out anti-gay protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church.

Titled “The Ascension of Matthew Shepard,” the portrait is part of a series by painter Carl Grauer that seeks to honor pivotal leaders from the LGBTQ movement through religious iconography. (The full series will be unveiled in June to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, demonstrations in New York City that marked the advent of the modern fight for LGBTQ rights.) Grauer, a gay man himself and the son of a former nun, grew up in central Kansas, steeped in the idea that homosexuality was a sin. “I spent my adolescence trying to pray the gay away,” he told me recently. But he also grew up surrounded by religious art, which has been used across centuries to enshrine values and social structures, suggesting who was holy — and who was not.

Grauer sees a parallel between the saints and martyrs of religion and those in the gay rights movement that have fought for basic freedoms, sometimes at great personal cost: “I’m going to take those same structures that were used against (LGBTQ people) and say, ‘we are important.’ ”

Though he typically paints in his studio in Poughkeepsie, New York, Grauer has been working on the series this fall from Jentel Arts Residency in Banner, Wyoming. (Full disclosure: I was a resident there at the same time.) On his drive north from Denver in September, he stopped at the place on the outskirts of Laramie where Shepard was tortured and left for dead by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson on the night of Oct. 6, 1998. Grauer was shocked — and then enraged — to find nothing there to commemorate the murder.

Shepard’s murder pushed Grauer to come out as gay 20 years ago, in the days after the news broke. But it was the upwelling of activism that followed that compelled Grauer to commemorate Shepard in the portrait series. “He died the death of a martyr. Not only was he beaten and tied up, he was set on fire … I feel really strongly about documenting this. The history books are not going to cover it,” Grauer said. For a time in his twenties, Grauer had moved back to Kansas to document the lives of gay Kansans, to “correct the imbalance” of people like him leaving town or remaining invisible, and he still misses the state, Grauer told me. “The sky, the stars, the isolation and quiet. All that is still in my soul.”

TWENTY YEARS AFTER Shepard’s murder, one might be tempted to assume it’s easier to live as a gay person in a conservative state like Kansas or Wyoming. After all, a 2015 Supreme Court ruling ensured that couples nationwide can marry, regardless of sex. In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which labeled crimes motivated by the victim’s gender, sexual orientation or gender identity as hate crimes, passed at the federal level. And Laramie, where Shepard was murdered, became the first town in Wyoming to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2015.

But despite its reputation as a “live and let live” state, there are indicators that things remain difficult, if not dismal: Wyoming has refused to pass legislation like nondiscrimination ordinances, conversion therapy bans and hate crime statutes, laws that would help protect LGBTQ people.

Has that lack of legal protections translated to violence? The answer is likely yes, said Sarah McBride, press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, but it’s hard to say to what extent. Reporting hate-related violence is currently voluntary, so accurate statistics are difficult to gather. And the details of an individual crime might not point directly to gender- or sexual orientation-related motivations, excluding it from the official tally.

Compounding the problem, many rural LGBTQ people choose not to report hate-based violence because of the consequences. In states like Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, “You can be fired for your sexual orientation or gender identity, so you may not want to go directly to police,” said Jason Marsden, the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. “It might end up in the paper.”

This is especially a consideration in predominantly Mormon areas. “There’s a lot of concern about how kids from LDS families who have nonconforming gender identities or sexual orientations are going to … get out of some of the traps of self-harm, family rejection and social rejection,” Marsden said.

In “The Ascension of Matthew Shepard,” Grauer offers one consolation. The painting borrows its composition from classical works depicting a tenet of Catholicism: the assumption of Mary, in which the sinless mother of Jesus is raised to heaven by a flock of angels. In Grauer’s version, it is the beaten body of Shepard that is rendered sinless, escorted by those who protected him from the vitriol of religious anti-gay activists. Gold stars watch over him, a reference to the closing comments of Shepard’s father at McKinney’s trial in 1999: “You left him out there by himself, but he wasn’t alone… There were his lifelong friends… the stars and the moon.”

Those who see in Shepard’s story their own may find themselves on Grauer’s canvas: protected, no longer alone, and — perhaps for the first time — made holy.

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Carl Grauer is the son of a former nun, not a former priest.

 Katherine E. Standefer’s debut book, Lightning Flowers, is forthcoming in late 2019 from Little, Brown Spark. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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