Photo courtesy the Washington Post.
Sophomore Brennan Connell sang with a chorus at the National Cathedral Oct. 26 as part of the interment of Matthew Shepard’s ashes. Shepard was an openly gay college student whose murder in 1998 became a rallying point in the gay rights movement. The service was attended by about 2,000 people.
Until this October, Shepard’s ashes were kept by his family in Casper, Wyoming. Shepard’s family was previously hesitant to lay him to rest publicly, fearing that it would lead to the desecration of his grave.
Connell sang with the GenOUT Youth Chorus, in association with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. GenOUT is a choral ensemble geared toward LGBTQ+ and allied students.
Despite the large audience, the Cathedral was completely silent during his performance, Connell said.
“I, for one, am not a crier; but I wish I could have cried—because everyone else was,” Connell said. “We were the only kids there performing. People who were alive back when Matthew was killed were explaining how it brings tears to their eyes to see kids going out there trying to prevent what happened to Matthew.”
GenOUT performed “Al Shlosha D’varim” by Allan Naplan during the prelude of the ceremony, as well as “Beautiful City” by Stephen Schwartz and “Make Them Hear You” by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty in accompaniment with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. The youth chorus also performed “I Was Here” by Lady Antebellum during the service.
GenOUT director Paul Heins hopes their performance spread awareness and acceptance, and he thought it symbolized the youth of the LGBTQ+ community taking the reins of the struggle against hate.
“It connected [the kids] to an important part of their history,” Heins said. “I continue to get feedback from people who said how meaningful it was to have the kids who represent the next generation perform.”
The ceremony was led by Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. In his sermon, Robinson reminded listeners that the same hate that brought Shepard’s death is now being aimed at people in the transgender community.
“Violence takes lots of forms,” Robinson said. “If you are here just to pay your respects and to remember Matthew, it’s not enough. If you’re not here to be transformed, you’ve come for the wrong reason.”
Connell said that the service and remembrance of Shepard was powerful and inspired him to make a difference.
“One of the messages is that there will always be a place that you are able to find a home,” Connell said. “We have to embrace people because by keeping people out we are, in turn, shutting ourselves away.”