December 1, 1976 – Matthew Wayne Shepard:
“As a young person, I feel it necessary to show the great nation that we live in that there doesn’t need to be this kind of violence and hatred in our world. And that loving one another doesn’t mean that we have to compromise our beliefs; it simply means that we choose to be compassionate and respectful of others.”
Born in the oil boomtown Casper, Wyoming to Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard was a sensitive, soft-spoken, and kind young man. He went to public school in Casper until his junior year of high school when Shepard moved with his family to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia where his father worked in oil safety engineering. He completed high school at The American School in Switzerland where he studied German, Italian, and Theatre and enjoyed music and fashion.
During his senior year, Shepard took a vacation with three classmates to Morocco. During this trip, Shepard was raped, beaten and robbed by a band of locals. Shepard was only 5′ 2” and 100 pounds, which made him particularly vulnerable to victimization. The perpetrators were never caught. After the assault, Shepard went in to therapy, but he continued to have flashbacks, panic attacks, and nightmares. He experienced periods of paranoia, depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide for the rest of his short life.
After graduating high school, Shepard briefly attended a small liberal arts college, in North Carolina, working towards a degree in Theatre. Although Shepard knew he was gay from a young age, he came out to his mother only after high school; she reassured him she had known for years. He then moved back home to attend Casper Community College.
At Casper, a teacher introduced him to Romaine Patterson, an outgoing unabashed lesbian who became one of Shepard’s best friends. Together they moved to Denver where Shepard worked a string of part-time jobs but always knew his passion was in helping people.
In 1998, he moved to Laramie and enrolled at the University of Wyoming, his parents’ alma mater, because he felt that living in a small town would help him feel safe. 21-year-old Shepard studied Political Science and International Relations in hopes of having having a career in Foreign Service. Polite, thoughtful and a great conversationalist, Shepard became active on campus and joined the university’s LGBT student alliance.
Just a few months after arriving in Laramie, on October 6, 1998, Shepard encountered Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at The Fireside Lounge, a local bar. McKinney and Henderson saw Shepard as an easy target and made plans to rob him. In the early hours of October 7th, the pair lured him away from the bar and drove him to a rural area where they tied him to a split-rail fence, beat him severely with the butt of a .357 Smith & Wesson pistol, and left him to die in the freezing temperatures of the early morning hours.
McKinney later stated he assumed Shepard was dead when they left. Shepard was discovered 18 hours later by a bicyclist who at first thought he was a scarecrow.
Still alive but in a coma, Shepard was rushed to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. For four days, Shepard lay comatose in a hospital bed just down the hall from McKinney, who was there as the result of a hairline fracture of the skull that he received in a brawl he had instigated just a few hours after attacking Shepard.
Shepard’s brain stem was severely damaged and he also was suffering from hypothermia. He was pronounced dead at 12:53 A.M. on October 12, 1998. Shortly after, police found the bloody gun as well as Shepard’s shoes and wallet in McKinney’s truck. McKinney and Henderson were arrested and were convicted of felony murder and kidnapping. Both received two consecutive life terms.
Shepard’s memorial service was held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper, and was attended by over 700 people, many had to stand outside in the snow, including friends and family from around the world. Also present were notorious protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church, including the charming Fred Phelps himself, who picketed the funeral with hateful homophobic signs such as “Matt in Hell” and “God Hates Fags”. Patterson organized a group, now called Angel Action, to block the protestors by wearing white robes and large angelic wings. It was replicated in Orlando, Florida, when Westboro Baptist Church tried to disrupt the funerals of gay people killed in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub.
Because his brutal attack attracted so much media coverage, Shepard’s death was front and center in the outcry against anti-gay hate and violence.
Despite the anti-gay rhetoric spouted by McKinney and Henderson throughout the trials that ultimately led to their life sentences for Shepard’s murder, they were not charged with a hate crime. As a result, Shepard’s high-profile murder case sparked protests, vigils and calls for federal legislation to protect LGBTQ victims of violence.
Eleven years after Shepard’s murder, President Barack Obama, with Judy Shepard by his side, signed into law The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. which expands the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The Shepard/Byrd Act gives the Department of Justice the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violent crimes against LGBTQ victims.
James Dobson, the ugly founder of the hate group Focus on the Family, opposed the Act, arguing that it would:
“…muzzle people of faith who dare to express their moral and biblical concerns about homosexuality”.
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, among other Senators, was concerned that the bill would not protect all individuals equally. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina spoke against the bill, saying that it was unnecessary, that it violated the 14th Amendment, and that it would be a step closer to the prosecution of “thought crimes”.
The bill passed the House on April 29, 2009, by a vote of 249–175. In the Senate, the bill only won the support of five Republicans: Susan Collins (ME), Dick Lugar (IN), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Olympia Snowe (ME), and George Voinovich (OH), and during the House debate, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina called the “hate crime” labeling of Shepard’s murder a “hoax”. Foxx later called her comments “a poor choice of words”.
Shepard’s life and death have served as an inspiration for activism against hate, inspired by Shepard’s passion for a more caring and just world. Shepard’s parents created the Matthew Shepard Foundation whose mission is for “individuals to embrace human dignity and diversity” and “to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance”.
In October 2018, just over 20 years after his death, Shepard’s ashes were interred at the crypt of the Washington National Cathedral. The ceremony was presided over by the first openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson. Music was performed by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC. His was the first interment of the ashes of a national figure at the cathedral since Helen Keller‘s a half-century earlier.
NBA player Jason Collins wore the jersey number “98” in honor of Shepard during his 2012–13 season with the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards, and would come out as gay following the season. After Collins joined the Brooklyn Nets in 2014, NBA marketing reported that his “98” jersey enjoyed high sales.
A collection of Shepard’s personal effects is on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
Shepard’s death and life have also been chronicled in the play The Laramie Project as well as several films, documentaries, and songs. including Sir Elton John‘s American Triangle (1999).
In 2019, 451 fewer law enforcement agencies participated in the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics Program than in 2018, while the number of reported hate crimes increased from 7,120 in 2018 to 7,314 in 2019.
Identities whose victimization increased in 2019 include: LGBTQ citizens, the mentally disabled, females, transgender, gender-nonconforming, Asian, Latinx, Arab, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and members of the Jewish, Catholic and Mormon faiths. Additionally, multiple-bias incidents exploded, doubling.
The severity of last year’s hate crimes showed troubling increases, with simple and aggravated assaults rising by five percent and murders more than 112 percent.
While grim, the report did include a few glimmers of hope for future improvements. Wyoming, Matthew Shepard’s home and one of only three states still lacking a state-level hate crime statute, reported five hate crimes from four cities and its sole university police department.