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National Cathedral to unveil Matthew Shepard portrait

A newly-unveiled portrait of Matthew Shepard is on display at the National Cathedral. (The Hill/Camdyn Bruce)

The National Cathedral Thursday evening will unveil a portrait dedicated to Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student whose murder in 1998 became a symbol of the gay rights movement.

LGBTQ members of the cathedral staff commissioned artist Kelly Latimore to create the portrait in dedication to Shepard’s life and legacy and as an homage to the LGTBQ community at large.

In 2018, Shepard’s ashes were interred at the Cathedral. His parents had been hesitant about settling on a final resting place out of fear it would be desecrated. 

While most religious iconography uses a gold leaf background, Latimore said that what makes Shepard’s portrait unique is the use of supportive letters that Shepard’s parents had received following his death to create the background.

“We used different clippings to create an almost mosaic of those letters and kind of precious and meaningful words to surround Matthew and the portrait of him,” Latimore said.

Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy, also shared several photos of their son with Latimore to capture his likeness. 

“We especially wanted the likeness of Matt to be right. We wanted people to look at it and know that it was Matt,” Shepard’s mother said. “There was nothing held back, we were an open book basically, so we just wanted it to be right.”  

A preview at the cathedral Thursday morning was the first time Shepard’s parents saw the portrait in person. Before that, they had only seen pictures of its progress over time. 

“It’s overwhelming. It shows Matt, it shows the essence of Matt,” Dennis Shepard said.

Shepard’s murder would eventually lead to the passage of the the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, which legally expanded hate crime laws to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. 

Work on the portrait began in March, but Shepard’s parents said in addition to the portrait being a dedication to their son, it was also a dedication to the victims of the Club Q shooting last month.

“Colorado Springs is the home of some of the most anti-LGBT evangelical forces in the country, so to have the antithesis here in a church representing and caring for Matt is just the exact opposite of what many people feel in Colorado Springs,” Shepard’s mother said.

His parents said they were grateful to the cathedral’s tribute, noting how different religious sects have varying views on LGBTQ issues. 

“The Episcopal Church split in the 90’s right from folks who wanted to welcome the community and folks who did not, and this Cathedral was always in the forefront of that movement to welcome everyone,” Judy Shepard said. “That’s really the essence of what churches are supposed to be, some of them say all are welcome here but they don’t really mean it and this one absolutely does.” 

The National Cathedral will hold an evening service at 7 p.m. Thursday to formally unveil the portrait on what would have been his 46th birthday. The church plans to hold an annual serve in remembrance of Shepard each December. 

“This event is gonna remind folks that there are places to go to feel safe and loved, and if your religion is really important to you, to understand that there are places you can go,” Judy Shepard said.

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