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San Diego Remembers marks five years of remembering Matthew Shepard

(Editor's note: SDGLN Staff Writer Ben Cartwright organized the first San Diego Remembers Matthew Shepard event with Rick Cervantes in 2008. Here, he shares about what led them to create the event, which will mark its fifth year tonight.)

It was 14 years ago this week that the nation and the world learned the horrific news of the brutal attack on Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student in Wyoming. Matthew, who was tied to a fence by his attackers and left to die, held onto his last breaths in a hospital bed as community members in Laramie, Wyo. and across the country organized vigils before he was pronounced dead on Oct. 12, 1998.

As this was happening, I had just began my freshmen year at San Diego State University, and that same week, attended a meeting of the school’s LGBT Student Union for the first time. The small group of students in the club were discussing the news of the attack and making plans to organize a vigil on campus. I remember the group being concerned about how they could quickly get the word out about the vigil, which today, would seem so easy with a simple Facebook event post.

Learning about the horrific attack and death of Matthew left me scared out of my mind. Being “out” for a little less than a year, this “gay stuff” was fairly new to me. It immediately hit me that something like this could happen to me, too. Just like me, Matthew was a college student, was gay, and even bore a bit of resemblance to me. It changed the way I looked at being gay, and realized that I needed to get involved in the fight for the equality and safety of my new-found community.

Ten years later, Matthew’s death was still on my mind. Early in 2008, I thought about how that year would mark the decade that has passed since the attack and started wondering about how it might be commemorated. I just assumed that someone somewhere in the local community would be organizing some sort of educational event, vigil or other remembrance, but as the date approached, I heard of nothing.

California was in the heat of the Proposition 8 debate that month, and many of our community leaders and activists were actively engaged in that fight. I understood why marking Matthew’s death might have slipped through the cracks locally since many of our movers and shakers were fighting one of the biggest battles for our civil rights in modern history. Regardless of what else going on, I didn’t want the date to pass without marking it in some way.

Rick Cervantes and I sat at my dining room table the morning of Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008 and made a simple poster that read “We Remember Matthew,” and included an image of his face that we found online. Having attended other vigils and remembrances at the John Wear Memorial Hate Crimes Plaque on University Avenue in Hillcrest, we thought it would be fitting to hang our poster there along with a couple of candles and a purple ribbon.

After placing the items at the plaque, the two of us stood there in silence for a few minutes, reflecting, and then left the display for the remainder of the day. Over dinner that evening, we had a long conversation about Matthew, and thought about other ways we could honor his memory.

In 2009, the date approached again and Rick and I decided to hold an event that was a bit larger, and put it out to Facebook. We partnered with the owners of The Ruby Room bar, who, at the time, also owned The Ruby Kitchen, and organized an event that included a candlelit march and celebration at the restaurant.

It was at this event that a handful of people came to us afterward and said “We want to help! We want to get involved!” We realized after this event that people did want to take part in this movement and be a part of the fight to end hate in our community.

Since that time, we have organized “San Diego Remembers Matthew Shepard” each October, working with a vibrant group of community volunteers who share a common desire to get involved, fight hate, and empower their peers to join them. As the event has grown, we have come to rely on the committee to make the event happen, many of whom work countless hours leading up to the day.

It is hard to believe that it has been five years since we first placed that poster and candle at the plaque on University Avenue, and we are so proud to be a part of a community that comes out each and every year to stand up against hate.

What happened to Matthew continues to be very real to me, and it will be something that I never forget. As I speak to various groups of people who are younger than me, I sometimes get frustrated that some of them have never heard of him, or only know his name, but not sure what his story is.

I have to remember, though, that rather than be frustrated that his memory is fading, it is my job to educate people about Matthew, whose life is a reminder that this type of hate still happens everyday and we all need to stand together against it.

Tonight’s event

The fifth annual San Diego Remembers Matthew Shepard Candlelit Vigil and Celebration will be held tonight, Tuesday, Oct. 9, starting at 7 pm. Community members are encouraged to gather at underneath the Hillcrest sign, located at Fifth and University avenues.

Once gathered, the group will march to The San Diego LGBT Community Center, 3909 Centre St., for a short program, which will include speakers, music, and a performance of Randi Driscoll’s song “What Matters” by the San Diego Women’s Chorus.

Participants are encouraged to wear purple and bring a candle. Purple ribbons will be provided.

After the evening’s events, The Range Kitchen & Cocktails, 1220 University Ave., will host a reception, including a selection of free appetizers, drink specials and music. Vigil participants and others are encouraged to gather at The Range following the event to celebrate, discuss and network.

For more information about tonight’s events, click HERE.

San Diego Remembers website is HERE.

Left photos: San Diego Remembers Matthew Shepard 2011. Credit: Jim Winsor/SDGLN.