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Thousands pour into National Cathedral as Matthew Shepard, a symbol of gay rights, is interred

Special to The Forum

WASHINGTON - Bells chimed softly, a flute slowly played "Morning Has Broken" and thousands filled the soaring nave of the Washington National Cathedral for the interment service of Matthew Shepard, the young man whose murder 20 years ago horrified the nation and became a milestone in the fight for gay rights.

The poignant service was at once a funeral and a celebration of life, a moment of closure for Shepard's loved ones and of remembrance for all those moved by the murder of Shepard, who was pistol-whipped and left for dead on a remote Wyoming prairie.

Video: Dennis and Judy Shepard discussed the loss of their son Matthew and the ensuing 20 years. Matthew's ashes will be interred at Washington National Cathedral on Oct. 26. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Presiding over the worship service at the second-largest cathedral in the country, in front of a crowd of about 2,000 people, was Bishop Gene Robinson, whose elevation in the early 2000s as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church marked another huge - and controversial - landmark in the push for LGBT equality.

In his homily, Robinson shared an anecdote from the first police officer who arrived at the site of Shepard's attack, a remote fence to which his battered body was lashed and left out in cold night. The policewoman recalled encountering a deer lying beside Shepard's body. When she approached, Robinson said, the animal looked straight into her eyes before bounding up and running away.

"What she said was: 'That was the good Lord, no doubt in my mind.' And there's no doubt in my mind either. God has always loved Matt," Robinson said.

Rippling through the Cathedral at times was the crackling energy of a political rally, with Robinson urging the crowd not to simply commemorate Shepard but to train their eyes on continued discrimination against sexual minorities, especially transgender people, who he called a "target" right now.

Just this week reports surfaced that the Trump administration is "seriously" considering changing the way it treats transgender people under the law - a fresh and direct aim at transgender rights.

"There are forces who would erase them from America," Robinson said. Twice he urged attendees to "go vote."

The crowd gave Robinson a long standing ovation as he closed his homily, choking back tears.

"There are three things I'd say to Matt: 'Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. And Matt, welcome home.' Amen."

Earlier in the service, Matthew Shepard's father, Dennis Shepard, thanked those in Cathedral, and the scores of others watching the live-streamed service online, for "helping us take Matt home."

"It is so important we now have a home for Matt," Shepard, 69, said. "A home that others can visit. A home that is safe from haters."

The father recalled his son's love for the Episcopal church, growing up in Sunday school and as an acolyte in their church at home in Wyoming.

"Matt was blind, just like this beautiful house of worship," Dennis Shepard said. "He did not see skin color. He did not see religion. He did not see sex orientation. All he saw was a chance to have another friend."

After the service, only the clergy and family descended to the Cathedral crypt, where dozens of other prominent people's ashes are kept, for a small interment ceremony. In that area is a public chapel, which is outside of the columbarium where Matthew Wayne Shepard's remains will rest.

For Shepard's family and friends, the service was a celebration of his life that wasn't possible at the tumultuous time of his 1998 murder, when anti-gay protesters screamed at funeral-goers. Tensions were so fierce at his funeral that his father wore a bulletproof vest under his blue suit.

In the years since Shepard's death, alternative narratives have gained more steam, in a 20/20 segment and later, a book, disputing the prevailing view that Shepard was targeted in part because he was gay. Investigators who worked on the case have rejected the theory that his sexuality wasn't a factor.

For two decades, Shepard's parents kept their son's ashes near their home in Casper, Wyoming. They feared laying him to rest in a public place, fearing it would draw attention from "people who hated what Matt represented," his mother, Judy Shepard recalled in an interview earlier this week. When a representative from the Smithsonian suggested the Cathedral earlier this year, it struck the couple as the perfect fit, Judy Shepard said.

"We were waiting to find the right solution, and the right solution appeared," she said.

Those who attended Friday's service were mostly older adults, members of a generation that can still recall Shepard's brutal killing, and the days of front-page headlines and candlelight vigils that followed. But even for those in attendance too young to remember Shepard's death, his story has resonated years later.

Abigail Mocettini, a 24-year-old who grew up in Boise, said Shepard's death loomed "in the background" for young people coming out -"especially in the West."

"As we were coming out, this affected our parents and informed their fears," Mocettini, now a District of Columbia resident, said as she prepared to enter the Cathedral. "Acknowledging queer history is a thing that needs to be respected. Once the old guard gets older, people forget how we got to rainbow flags,"

Before the start of the service at 10 a.m., the line of people bundled in heavy coats snaked across the grounds of the massive church, at the U.S. capital's highest spot.

One woman waiting to enter the Cathedral, Rebecca York, 22, works with LGBT youth at a District-based group called Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, known as SMYAL. Most young people the group sees are African American men, York said. A city survey found 43 percent of homeless youth in the District identify as LGBTQ.

"Threat of physical violence is not new to them," York said. "It's scary to be a young gay man."

Some close to Shepard say even with his fame - his killing is the subject of many books, shows and one of the most-produced plays in the country, "The Laramie Project" - the idea of his interment in the prominent cathedral feels momentous. Also this week, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History received a donation from the family of some of his belongings.

"This was a grace note for us," said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and a friend of Shepard's at the time of the killing.

Even as advocates hope Shepard's interment will be a catalyst for Americans to focus on civil rights, the service was for those who knew him a grand, final goodbye.

It included a song called "Ordinary Boy" compiled with snippets from journal entries written by someone who barely made it out of childhood. The service noted his supportive, loving family and church. Shepard also struggled with drugs and clinical depression after being raped in Morocco a few years before he was killed.

"I want my life to be happy and I want to clearer about things. I want to feel good. I love Wyoming very much. I love theatre. I love good friends. I love succeeding," go the song's lyrics, which were sung by a series of singers at the service's close as the cavernous sanctuary began to empty into the workday. "Such an ordinary boy living ordinary days, in an ordinary life so worth living."

Among those singing at the service were members of the Gay Men's Chorus of the District. For one of them, Marcus Brown, 42, the moment brought back vivid memories of Shepard's death and what it meant to him at the time, as a gay college student not unlike the young man from Wyoming.

At the time, Brown had not yet come out as gay. He was studying at Howard University, hoping to escape the rural South Carolina hometown he grew up in. He remembers thinking how closely his own life paralleled Shepard's, "being from places that were not accepting and finding the best ways to cope with how to exist."

As Brown prepared to sing at Friday's interment service, he reflected on the uncertainty and fear he felt two decades ago, but also on the confidence and freedom he has gained in the 15 years since coming out - in part thanks to Shepard.

"It's our responsibility as members of a certain age to pass those stories down," Brown said, "to explain that the progress that we have made has come through a lot of trials and tribulations."

This article was written by Samantha Schmidt and Michelle Boorstein, reporters for The Washington Post.

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