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Matthew Shepard documentary shows the world the real Matt

"Matt had struggles and hardships and successes like anyone else, which is really what made what happened so tragic," says Judy Shepard.

Matthew Shepard loved smiling, helping others, and getting hugs. He dreamed of harnessing his talent for languages – he spoke five – and his passion for human rights, aspiring to be a diplomat once he graduated from college.

But those hopes were cut tragically short on the night of Oct. 6, 1998, when the University of Wyoming student became the victim of one of the most notorious hate crimes in American history. Shepard was brutally beaten and left chained to a fence to die, all because he was gay. The fabric of the nation was forever changed.

Since that fateful day, Shepard's name was given to a landmark hate crimes prevention law signed by President Barack Obama in 2009. As the years passed, he has been elevated to an almost mythical status within the LGBTI community, and the identity of the young man who family and friends simply knew as "Matt" was overshadowed.

And so a new documentary directed by childhood friend Michele Josue seeks to show the world who the real Matt was, flaws and all. The film lifts up the curtain from Shepard's private life, and details the energetic, fearless, and talented figure remembered by history, while also shedding a more earnest light on his imperfections and hardships, including a battle with depression.

Distributed by Virgil Films & Entertainment, "Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine" is being released Tuesday on iTunes, DVD, and VOD platforms. To mark the release, Matt's mom, the legendary gay rights advocate Judy Shepard, spoke with MSNBC about her son's life and legacy 17 years after his untimely death:

MSNBC: Seventeen years after Matt’s death, what new revelations about his life does Michele Josue’s film teach us?

Shepard: When [my husband] Dennis and I started the [Matthew Shepard] Foundation and our work as advocates for this community, we shared our story and Matt’s story with the world to help other parents better accept their children for who they are. As the years went on and our work continued, we began to notice that the Matt we knew was overshadowed by the idea of “Matthew Shepard”—he wasn’t a perfect person, he wasn’t an angel without flaws. Matt had struggles and hardships and successes like anyone else, which is really what made what happened so tragic. This film sheds a more truthful light on who he was, and we want the world to know who Matt really was and what he went through.

MSNBC: What is your family's favorite part about the film? 

Shepard: Our favorite part is seeing Matt laughing and smiling – interacting with those who cared about him and hearing their stories about Matt.

MSNBC: At the beginning of the film, Josue says, “Matt was a friend I thought I’d known my whole life.” Matt was a son you thought you’d known your whole life. If he were alive today, who would the Matt that you knew be?

Shepard: I know that if Matt were alive, he’d be doing exactly what Dennis and I sought out to do—change the hearts and minds of people to accept others as they are. Matt was very passionate about human rights, he knew five languages and wanted to work overseas to help others. He wanted to be a part of the U.S. diplomatic corps, working to achieve the same equality and progress that we are doing in his name today.

MSNBC: In the film, Matt is described as being “about the business of learning about life.” What lessons about life did Matt teach you that you still carry with you today?

Shepard: He taught us to be fearless, try new things and not be afraid of the unknown. You learn by doing – not watching others experience life to its fullest.

MSNBC: At the close of the film, your husband Dennis and yourself are described as the parents hundreds of children wish they’d had. When Matt told you he was gay, you looked at him and said, “So what took you so long to tell me?” What would you say to parents who throw their kids on the streets simply because they’re gay?

Shepard: I grieve for their loss. They have no idea what they are sacrificing so they will feel comfortable with their own dogma – whether that is religion or some perceived "societal norm."

MSNBC: You courageously chose not to seek the death penalty against Matt’s killers. There is currently an increased debate about ending the death penalty taking place in courts across the country. Based on your experience, would you recommend we, as a nation, move beyond the death penalty?

Shepard: No.

MSNBC: In one of the film’s most emotional moments, a priest tells Josue, “I hope you never lose being angry at this. Maybe his friends, their most important mission is to remind the world to be angry at that." Will you ever be at peace with what happened to Matt? Is that OK?

Shepard: We will never be at "peace" with losing Matt, but life goes forward. We have learned how to use that anger to work toward a better world. And it is OK. Our grief will never go away – it will just be different.

MSNBC: This year, LGBT rights advocates won a major victory in the path toward equal rights, as marriage equality became the law of the land. But it was also just this year that Laramie, the town where Matt was murdered, passed an anti-discrimination ordinance to protect its LGBT citizens. What work is left to be done for everyone in this country to be truly equal?

Shepard: There’s so much more to be done. And now we have the momentum to move on to the remaining challenges. Since Matt’s death, the way we talk about the LGBT community and hate crimes in this country has changed radically. The community is represented in government, entertainment and media, business leadership. Military service, spousal immigration, hospital visits - these challenges are mostly if not entirely resolved. But “equality” is more than marriage equality. Your same-sex wedding photo on your desk at work can still get you fired fresh off your honeymoon. Bullying is an epidemic, and youth are still harming themselves at an alarming rate. We’ve only just begun to even talk thoughtfully and constructively as a society about the advances the trans community still need to make. We have so much more to do.

MSNBC: What is Matt’s legacy? What does America and the world owe to his memory?

Shepard: As we have traveled the world, one of the common denominators has been a generation of activists and advocates who have told us that they are doing what they are doing because of what happened to Matt. These people are not all part of the LGBTI community other than as allies, but what happened to Matt affected them so deeply they felt compelled to act. In his memory, we have made conscious choices to fight hate and discrimination for all citizens.