On the eve of his 2003 consecration as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson received a "very special" note from Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew had been killed five years earlier.
“I know that Matt will be smiling down on you tomorrow,” the note read.
Matthew Shepard has become an international symbol of the violence LGBT people in America face after his death in 1998, when he was savagely beaten and tied to a fence by two men. In their confessions, the assailants said they targeted Shepard because he was gay.
Now, 20 years after his death, Shepard’s ashes will be interred at the Washington National Cathedral Friday. Robinson, the former bishop for the diocese of New Hampshire, will preside over the service along with the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, the Episcopal bishop of the diocese of Washington.
“It’s just an indescribable honor, because I’ve carried Matt around in my heart for the last 20 years, as so many of us have,” Robinson said.
Following the 10 a.m. Friday service, Shepard's ashes will be interred in the lower level of the cathedral in a private gathering with his parents, family and close friends. Only 200 other Americans are interred in the National Cathedral.
In an exclusive interview with USA TODAY, Robinson spoke of how far the LGBTQ community in America has come since Shepard’s death – but also stressed that the work isn’t over.
“While we have made great progress on the two coasts and in many urban areas, there are vast stretches of America that are frankly not all that different than the environment that Matthew found himself in,” Robinson said.
Since Shepard’s death, LGBTQ people in America have been afforded several important rights, Robinson said. He listed the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage as chief among them, as well as the ability of transgender Americans to serve in the military.
Still, President Donald Trump has sought to ban transgender troops from serving, a move that has so far been blocked by a federal court but is being appealed by the administration.
Further, The New York Times reported Monday that the Trump administration is considering a proposal that would redefine gender as a rigid status depending on the genitalia a person is born with. The decision could affect up to 1.4 million Americans who identify as transgender.
Robinson described the proposed policy as “unnecessarily cruel.”
“This is not a problem that needs fixing,” he said. “There is no problem with people being able to define who they are, and yet, there are those who want to do violence against them because of who they are.”
The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of the National Cathedral, said it's likely the Cathedral will speak out against the proposal.
"We certainly do not want anything to happen in our country that would further marginalize a group of people regardless of who that group of people is, especially transgender people in our country," he said.
Hollerith said the cathedral is honored to be Shepard's final resting place.
"I hope Matthew would be pleased to be here," he said.
After 20 years, Robinson did wonder if people would remember Shepard.
He said high level of interest in Friday's service shows the "powerful symbol of the threat that we all face."
“And let’s just remember that violence against us continues to this day and in different forms,” Robinson said. “As we speak and as we prepare for this service, there is being proposed a new policy that would attempt to erase transgender people from the life of America."