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“Considering Matthew Shepard” made its debut in Southwest Florida, showcasing the life, death, and legacy of a gay college student

In a densely filled auditorium, choral music swept through the air, churning emotions throughout the audience. Tissues were out, hearts were pounding, and tear-glazed eyes listened as Choral Artistry sang the three-part oratorio, “Considering Matthew Shepard” by composer Craig Hella Johnson at Faith Presbyterian Church in Cape Coral last Sunday.

“Considering Matthew Shepard,” performed in Southwest Florida for the first time, details the life and death of gay college student, Matthew Shepard. His story continues to impact people today, almost 25 years after his death.

Shepard was a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. On October 7, 1998, Shepard was abducted by two men; Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who drove Shepard to a desolate area east of Laramie. Shepard was tied to a split-rail fence and was beaten to the point of death. Shepard was found by a bicyclist about 18 hours after his assault. Shepard was so injured, the bicyclist initially took him to be a scarecrow.

Shepard was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado where he died October 12, 1998.

His death led to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, which provides funding and assistance to state, local and tribal jurisdictions to help investigate and prosecute hate crimes more effectively.

The oratorio “Considering Matthew Shepard” uses a variety of musical styles ranging from country to gospel to convey who Shepard was, and how his death left a lasting impact.

When Choral Artistry (formerly Symphonic Chorale of Southwest Florida) selected “Considering Matthew Shepard” as part of their seasonal repertoire, those involved couldn't anticipate what the political climate in Florida would be like today, particularly with the so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill signed in March by Governor DeSantis.

“That, I think, has made everyone even more determined to tell the story in a really passionate way,” Dr. Trent Brown, the director of the oratorio, said.

Dr. Brown was either in college or just graduating when Shepard’s story hit the media.

“I remember the way that it especially impacted, you know, friends of mine who were gay. [They] would remark that ‘that could have been me,’” he said.

Many of the singers in the choir weren’t born yet when Shepard died, according to Brown. For most of them, this is their first time hearing his story.

“As painful as the story is, it’s important to keep telling it and to remember the good that has come,” Dr. Brown said. “There were people laughing, people crying, people doing both at the same time. It was really remarkable to give that space to the audience to have that experience.”

Aaron Levine, a chorus member in the oratorio, said performing “Considering Matthew Shepard” was impactful to him as he has many friends who identify as LGBTQ2+. He said the oratorio speaks to those who identify within that group.

“It's a force for hope and understanding for those who are like Matthew. And I think of course that's super important, but to express that through music and song, it elevates it to a whole other level of understanding,” Levine said. “We can all understand music and therefore we can all understand what this is about.”

Valerie Rumph, who attended the oratorio, wept during the performance. Her emotions swelled through the story, and the music led to her saying it was a powerful show to see.

“I always hope that we’re going to live in a better world where things like [Shepard’s death] don’t happen anymore,” Rumph said. “20 years later, I’m still not sure we’re there yet, but I’m hopeful that we’ll get there.”

Patricia Rice is the president of the Choral Artistry Board of Directors. She said Matthew Shepard’s death brought much attention to brutalities and hate crimes against the LGBTQ2+ community. However, it took 11 years after Shepard’s death for the federal definition of a hate crime to include crimes against people due to sexual orientation or gender identity, through the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.

While the federal definition of a hate crime now protects those who identify as LGBTQ2+, several states do not have federal hate crime laws included in their state laws, according to the United States Department of Justice. This includes Wyoming, where Shepard was killed.

Rice said she believes it’s important for people to not only be aware of Shepard’s story, but what his story means in the midst of conflict and divisiveness.

“There is a way to find healing, and hope, and love, and unity, and to break down the sound of divisiveness and tearing each other apart,” Rice said. “It gets us nowhere. how we succeed is remembering to love each other and to find healing with each other.”