In the painting, Matthew Shepard’s hands are finally free. The length of rope that once lashed him to the buck and rail fence drapes loosely around his waist; the caked blood that made his body look like a scarecrow to a passing cyclist is now a gleaming, rich red. He rises into the air surrounded by angels, each bearing the face of Saint Sebastian — patron saint of those who conceal their identities to avoid persecution. The angels’ wings stand tall and arched, like the wire and cloth wings Shepard’s friends wore at his funeral in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, to block out anti-gay protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church.

 

Titled “The Ascension of Matthew Shepard,” the portrait is part of a series by painter Carl Grauer that seeks to honor pivotal leaders from the LGBTQ movement through religious iconography. (The full series will be unveiled in June to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, demonstrations in New York City that marked the advent of the modern fight for LGBTQ rights.) Grauer, a gay man himself and the son of a former nun, grew up in central Kansas, steeped in the idea that homosexuality was a sin. “I spent my adolescence trying to pray the gay away,” he told me recently. But he also grew up surrounded by religious art, which has been used across centuries to enshrine values and social structures, suggesting who was holy — and who was not.

 

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