“Considering Matthew Shepard” is a choral piece about the Wyoming college student whose brutal murder touched off a national discussion of homophobia. It also helped lead to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Craig Hella Johnson composed the work for the Austin group Conspirare. A 2016 recording of the performance was nominated for a Grammy, and PBS will air a performance this fall.
For State of the Arts this week, I sat down with Johnson to talk about why Shepard’s story is still so potent, almost 20 years later. Click above to listen to the piece that aired on KERA. Here’s much more of our chat:
You didn’t know Matthew Shepard but you’ve said that you felt his death very deeply and it really stuck with you. Did you see yourself in him at all?
Sure, I did I think a lot of gay men did at that time and then ultimately a lot of people did. Just the aspect of there being a young gay man, but also he was not a large boy he was quite frail and light. There were just a lot of elements about Matt Shepherd that I and many people resonated with.
His life and death have inspired music, theater performances, documentary films, poetry. Why does his story continue to resonate so deeply?
Such a great question. There’s something that we haven’t resolved, something really significant and major, it’s not just about Matt’s story, but this resonates because in our culture we still are failing at learning how to love and respect one another and to hold each other all beings as being worthy of that love and respect. I think that’s a large reason that we are wanting to work this out. I think there are some particulars in Matt’s story that somehow represented many aspects of this culture.
There’s something about Matt’s death on the fence, or the fact that he was beaten and tied to the fence, there’s just something so iconic about that image. You know obviously, it looks like a cross made of wood and his arms are extended. You know, that’s the image a lot of people remember. That’s a piercing image.
And then just from the standpoint of his family, his family is Judy and Dennis Shepard and then his brother, who are just a wonderful family but sort of regular American family. They don’t look a lot different than many folks and then there’s the resonance that this could happen to them.
I think the fact that this story took place in the American West, you know, the John Wayne culture. So much of that landscape has been a part of shaping our ideas thought about maleness. Just on and on, there’s so many aspects of this story that bring powerful pictures forth.
I want to follow up on that idea of the iconic. Sheppard was, as one song in the piece notes, an ordinary boy, yet his death made him an iconic symbol of homophobia and the movement to end it. How did you navigate these different sides to his story?
Well Judy Shepard, his mother, really kind of told my heart what I needed to do. I had begun some work on this piece prior to having met Dennis and Judy Shepard. When I first met with them, I didn’t want to move forward if it didn’t feel like it was going to have their blessing or their support. But when we were speaking I asked Judy, “How do you hold all this?”
It’s just unfathomable, this incredible loss that became so public and now you’re still holding and carrying the heart of the work of this out in the world. I think this, at the time, was 16 years [after Matthew’s death] and she said to me “The world knows Matthew Shepard. That’s the iconic part. To us, he was Matt. We lost Matt.”
“I carry that personal grief forward always,” she said. “Essentially we do the work of Matthew Shepard.”
So this was kind of a very important cue for me that I need to bring Matt into the piece, not just Matthew Shepard. It was very helpful and very important. That’s where “Ordinary Boy” came from. That was for Matt.
Shepard killers have a song in this piece and the lyrics are extraordinarily compassionate. They include the lines “I am like you, I’ve come unhinged and made mistakes, and hurt people very much.” How do you feel about these men?
Well, just right out of the gate there’s nothing to say, except tremendous anger. And you know, at some points rage that these men committed this act. I think that that anger can be carried a long time, but I know that it can’t only be that only, taking it out on Aaron and Russell, the perpetrators. You’re right, it’s a song for Aaron and Russell. But it’s really also very much a song for the audience member, who may be imagining this is a story of very simple divisions. There’s good, there’s bad. Matt, good; perpetrators, bad.
You know clearly they were heinous acts. I mean we can spend the entire time just speaking about that. But if you want to heal, I was interested in asking that question, what do we need to look at? I’m saying what, in the small tiny micro ways, do I contribute to this sense of separateness in the culture?
It was a moment of reflection. It always felt like a brave moment. I mean, one that took a lot of courage, because it’s asking the audience members to consider something very difficult. But it feels essential for healing.
The sky and the grass are characters in this piece. There’s a deer who may have stood by Shepard as he died. The fence that he was tied to is a character. What role does the Wyoming landscape and the natural world play in this work?
That’s a beautiful question.I appreciate it. It’s a big question, because I think it holds a lot in this piece. It’s such a beautiful landscape. The sky seems so expansive. It seems like a place that would have opportunity for any living thing to fulfill itself in terms of the space and the beauty. And then there is the dry, arid, sometimes waterless, parched sense of the prairie.
It’s very much a landscape of the American West, which holds us in our American psyche. I know as a man, I got to meet the west in an interesting way because it is so beautiful and yet our experience of it is that it has not been a welcoming place for people of, well I’ll say, of all kind of diversity. I love to think of my very tiny part in ” Can we have a new vision of the American West?” Can we, in going forward, in healing, rethink the American West so John Wayne does not have to be the dominant, or only, influence. He has his place, but it’s a beautiful broad landscape with a diversity of plants, with a diversity of scenery, and setting. And so it’s very potent in this piece. And it was very specific. That’s one of the reasons I responded to it and wanted to bring it forward in this setting.
In 2013 a book came out that undermine the idea that Shepard’s death was a hate crime. This book is called “The Book of Matt.” In it, investigative reporter Steven Jimenez argued that Shepherd and his killers were part of the crystal meth drug trade, and that his death was related to that, not to homophobia. The Shepard Foundation and the Laramie police have disputed this. Were you aware of the controversy when you wrote this piece?
I was, yes. I looked into it. I would say I spent some time with research with it too. I needed to have my own time with it too. In addition to the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the police and other sources , it’s been widely discredited. That’s my first resolution with that. But then, as I’ve gotten to know people who were close to Matt, there was nothing about the substance of Jimenez’ arguments that stands true. Just sort of my deeper knowing sense that intuitive sense one has it just doesn’t stack up. It’s out there and he’s got a right to do that. I discredit it fully myself, but even if, even if let’s say some aspects of these claims are true, how in the world wouldn’t we call that kind of a beating a hate crime? Even if it’s not specifically, I mean it’s just utterly confounding to me why that’s still not a hateful act. So yeah, I stand pretty clear on that in this piece.
It also points to the piece itself – “Considering Matthew Shepard.” This isn’t a gay story, this isn’t just an L.G.B.T.Q event or conversation. This is specifically meant for all those ways we separate from one another and say “You are not like me; you are other.” You know I just want to be done with that practice. And I’m guessing that in my lifetime we won’t completely finished, but I’m trying to do my tiny part.
This story is so bleak and so sad. What hope do you see?
I really went into this whole project with a question. It was a living question, and it went something like this: At the core, in the midst of such confounding reality, you know this darkness, this hatefulness, this sense of separateness that we have created in the culture…. In the midst of these things that we cannot understand… is love anywhere to be found? And this is my living question. This piece is still a part of my asking. And I’m asking it with audience members too.
So I feel like, as we sing this, as we share this with audience members, we all together are living our way into some answers and some learning.
With regards to the story and Matt Shepherd, absolutely, like you said, it is incredibly bleak, desperately horrific and sad. And there is light that has come from this.
Every time I meet people that have been touched in some way by the Matthew Shepard story, by his family, I see love. I mean, I call Judy and Dennis Shepard warriors for love across the planet. I mean, just extraordinary beings. I know they were special back in 1997, before any of this happened. But they have become these conduits for such goodness and such light.
You know we even point to things like you know Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. which came as a result of this and the good that has come from that. Of course the Supreme Court and gay marriage and inclusion in those ways. It also points similarly to racial divides that we have been experiencing so deeply and painfully.
So I would just say yes, in the core of this, there is light that’s shining and there’s healing that comes.
Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.