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Jason Marsden was the politics reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune in 1998. He penned this column the day Matthew Shepard died.

As his spirit recedes from this troubled world, and into the light that he embodied, Matthew Shepard is still my friend, and not just because we’re both members of the loose-knit community of gay people striving to make our way in this sometimes hostile place called Wyoming.

Matt is my friend because his youthful face would light up every time we saw one another. Matt loved people. So often repeated, that’s become almost a cliche, but think about the words. Matt loved people. He did not harbor anger for them or for himself. He saw the human condition and it tugged at his heart.

Matt was very short and hard to hug, but it was worth trying, because he’d hug you with everything in his little, fragile frame. He wanted quite literally to impress upon you the bond we all share as brothers and sisters of the human flesh.

There is nothing more magical about friendship than its power to carve a smile onto a face as dour as mine. Among gay men, that unspoken electricity of kinship is even stronger. And though it can be flirtatious, often it has no sexual undercurrent at all.

Sadly, many of our young men, reared in isolation and battened down within bastions of self-imposed isolation, can only express their emotions purely and intensely when the feeling is hatred and the target is at hand.

That may have been the story of the perpetrators who tore the spirit from my friend’s body, who devastated a family and a community and sickened the world in their explosion of wrath.

I was proud of Matt for transferring to the University of Wyoming — standing up for his right to live where he loved being — and for pursuing a subject I care deeply about, political science.

It crossed my mind more than once that the stodgy study of politics could use a few more feeling, kind-hearted souls like Matt within its ranks. Politics rules our world. How wonderful if it could do so with a sliver of love — and how rare.

Matthew wanted to put his considerable talents and energy and gift for languages to work bringing peace between peoples through the inspiration of diplomacy and the tenacity of a born leader.

Matt’s openness infuriated many who dwell behind a wall of fear, anxiety or prejudice. They are truly few in number among us — but the echoes and ripples of their rage can rival our howling winter wind in fury and bitterness.

Men like that had already tried to beat the joy and individuality out of Matt twice before. Tried to shatter him like the mirror that reflected their despised inner selves.

But Matt never stopped being a sprightly, kindly, openly gay guy just because cowards who crouch within towers of anger liked to beat him up for sport.

What sport it could have been, I’ll never know. Matt weighed 105 pounds. He wore boyish braces. His hands, and the fists I never saw him make out of them, were tiny.

He’d been broken before, and he didn’t change because he had nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to change into but an even better self.

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It seems the threat of Matt spreading his light was too terrible a prospect for the spirit of ugliness that dwells in the dark spaces deep within. That ancient malevolence used Matt’s own brothers to spill his blood, to sow sorrow in a world we rightly see as a joyous gift.

Matthew Shepard’s body did not survive this depraved and cruel attack. But will his spirit of openness to others? Will any of ours?

What happened here in Wyoming this week makes a good news story — a reminder to all that an antique fury yet scourges the land of the free.

But it must be more than news. It must be a clarion call to our fragmented 20th-century souls. To recover our heritage of love and cast off the slavery that hatred subjects us to.

Hatred will always target light. Their feud predates time itself. But I believe man arose from the divine to safeguard the light, not to snuff it. Our petty differences in this life are but tools to strengthen our whole race in its quest to bring justice out of chaos.

Let us hope, and pray, and fight like hell, to see that this tragedy does not come to represent our state and our unique community. Each of us has the power to prevent that.

How? By being a little more like Matt Shepard. Open. Loving. And maybe even — like we “country cousins” are in the stereotypes of the outside world — a little too trusting for our own good.

Our challenge is to love Matt, and his killers, equally. We must not thirst for vengeance. We must not crave the blood of those who spilled it. We must be governed by our laws and not our passions.

May my prayers, and they are many, reach Matthew as well as those whose faces were the last thing he saw. May the parents of the perpetrators and their victim recover from this tragedy. And most of all, may we all learn once more how to let our differences unite us.

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