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Matthew Shepard's parents hope new documentary sheds myths about their son

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TORONTO - In the days and months following Matthew Shepard's death, news outlets reported that his tortured body was found strung up on a fence "like Jesus on the cross."

It wasn't true — he was tied to a fence, but his bloodied and beaten body looked nothing like the crucifixion. Yet the phrase was repeated, and the image of Matthew Shepard the martyr remains to this day.

His parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, and childhood friend Michele Josue hope a new documentary about his life will change that.

"As a friend, I thought it was very heartbreaking that the world didn't get the chance to see who he was as a human being ... People were starting to view him as this icon without flaws, and I think that is very dangerous and unfortunate," said Josue, who directed the film.

"What I wanted to do with this film was just to share with the world that although Matt was very special to us, he was just a normal kid with all the hopes and dreams and struggles that everyone else possesses."

The documentary, "Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine," is showing Saturday at Toronto's Inside Out LGBT Film Festival, before opening in theatres across Canada this fall. Judy, Dennis and Josue are in Toronto to attend the screening.

On Oct. 6, 1998, two men lured Shepard, a gay freshman at the University of Wyoming, from a bar and drove him to a field, where he was tortured and left to die. Shepard, 21, succumbed to the severe injuries and died six days later.

The murder made headlines around the world and sparked dialogue about hatred and violence against the LGBT community. His story has been adapted into a play, "The Laramie Project," and he became the namesake for a landmark hate crimes prevention bill signed by President Barack Obama in 2009.

His parents have taken on the cause of equal rights for LGBT people by creating the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an advocacy and outreach organization. Judy has told the story of her son's life and death countless times all over the globe, hoping it will prompt change.

But she said she has mixed feelings about her son becoming a symbol.

"His name comes up in the most odd places. I was reading an article about the oppression of Afghani women, and Matt's name was mentioned, as an example of oppression," she said.

"He just became for a generation the name that goes with generic oppression, not even just gay oppression. The media just sort of took the whole story over and created something out of it that's still out there."

The documentary follows Josue as she travels to pivotal locations in Shepard’s life, interviewing other friends and family members, and, in some heart-wrenching scenes, reading aloud his diary entries and unsent letters to friends.

The film reveals that, as a teenager, Shepard was attacked and gang raped while on vacation in Morocco. His family and friends say the incident deeply affected the normally gregarious young man, causing him to retreat into himself for a time.

But his personality was always warm, outgoing and trusting. Ironically, the documentary suggests, the very personality traits that made him so lovable may have also been the traits exploited by his killers.

"He was so trusting and didn't ever see the bad in anybody. He just felt everybody was a potential friend. I think he was even more motivated to make friends with those people no one else would make friends with," said Judy.

"I don't think he understood that it could come back in the end and really hurt him. I don't think he ever knew that."

In the documentary, a friend remarks that Shepard always wanted to be famous — and now he is. Dennis said he grapples with the idea that his son's tragic death created positive change for the LGBT community.

"I stop and wonder, 'How far along would we be if Matt hadn't died, to bring a focus to the treatment and the indignities that the gay community was receiving? Would we still be back 15 years, 20 years, back where we were, or would we still move forward?' I don't know.

"You want your son, but you want him to have the same rights. That's where he almost seemed like a martyr. He gave up his life so others could receive it. You've got to be really careful about how that is viewed."

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