The Legacy of Matthew Shepard
The adage that journalism is the first draft of history might obscure the fact that in many minds, it becomes the lasting impression.
Wyoming, and Laramie in particular, began to experience this phenomenon on Oct. 8, 1998, when a joint press release by the Albany County Sheriff and the Laramie Police Department disclosed an attempted-murder investigation under way in the case of dying 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, pistol-whipped nearly to death in the middle of the night and left tied to a buck-rail fence on the prairie east of town. Shepard was clinging still to life in intensive care in a Fort Collins, Colo., hospital, but his prognosis was unmistakably grave.
The investigation, and the public’s reaction, moved swiftly. Reports, eventually given substance by investigators and the prosecutor, suggested that Matthew’s two 21-year-old attackers were motivated at least in part by the fact that Matt was gay. The suspects were quickly brought into custody and a chilling taped confession from one—revealed later at trial—would cement the crime’s initial description for both the media and the broader public. This was a deadly gay-bashing, according to that description, in a lonesome, rural place, without much of a visible gay community and a political establishment not only opposed to that community’s needs, but even hostile toward its existence.
First impressions and history
As with all such cases, especially where the victim cannot testify to his experience, the full circumstances of the murder will have to remain based on the accounts of third-party actors or of the killers themselves, most of which are in the official records. Yet the attack’s historical impact on Wyoming, and Laramie, and those places’ broader public identities to strangers worldwide, were powerfully shaped by the shocking first impressions of this vividly remembered crime: It turns out there are gay people in Wyoming. It’s an anti-gay place, according to these impressions, and their safety is at risk. There are not enough laws about this kind of thing, in Wyoming or anywhere. It happens too much and needs to stop.
As a gay man, a reporter at the Casper Star-Tribune and a friend of the victim’s, I watched from the front row; first, the coverage by the Denver and Wyoming media, then the wire services, then national and overseas outlets, and finally the then-emerging websites. There were satellite trucks crowding Laramie and candlelight vigils everywhere—in Laramie, and in Casper, even one in the northwest part of the state in tiny Meeteetse. Eventually there was one on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, too, and a near-riot with 100 arrests in downtown Manhattan. The farther from the epicenter, the less the rallies were about grief and the loss of a neighbor, and the more they were an expression of outrage over endless examples of hatred and violence against gay, lesbian and transgender people.
Myself, I shared the view–still do, and the statistics back me up–that anti-gay hate crimes happen all too often, and that sentence enhancements, better prevention and a more consistent message being sent by our public officials, would all be helpful. That was part of the media storyline of that week in October 1998 that has persisted; when I meet new people in faraway places who find out where I work or where I’m from, more often than not they bring up the crime without prompting.
I disagreed at the time, and still do, that Wyoming is an anti-gay place, or that our safety was at greater risk here than anywhere else. There were 68 anti-gay hate crimes reported in New York City in the first eight months of 2013 alone, but not a single new one in Laramie in 15 years. State legislators have fought both pro-gay and anti-gay legislation to a standstill for almost 20 years–a disappointing outcome, but more balanced than much of the rest of the country.
The gay people I’ve known in Wyoming, like myself and my partner, enjoy peaceful lives, productive careers, and social acceptance to more or less the same degree as their heterosexual neighbors.
All of that, however, is a piece of the story that has proven much more difficult to communicate. About every five years, when a retrospective, what-has-changed story is commissioned for Time or The New York Times, I try to make the point when given the chance. But in the eyes of many, Laramie remains tied to a hate crime more than to any other thing.
A few major national legacies emerged, ultimately, from Matt’s murder and have had a lasting impact.
Starting almost immediately after the crime, national LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) organizations renewed their call for a federal hate-crime statute to be extended to crimes motivated by anti-gay bias. The bill had been a losing cause in Congress for many years, despite presidential backing, but supporters outraged by the Shepard case redoubled their efforts with the highly visible support of Matt’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard. Sometimes passing the House, sometimes the Senate, the bill continued to fail or be sidelined by presidential veto threats until its enactment in October 2009, eleven years after the crime.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act–which also commemorates the victim of a notorious 1998 racist murder in Jasper, Texas–has since been invoked in a few violent crime cases, but has also authorized useful federal law enforcement assistance to local and state officials in a wider array of investigations.
The Laramie Project
A literary and theatric legacy, meanwhile, came from a band of playwrights and performers from New York City who were moved by the unfolding story of how a town responds to tragedy, controversy and worldwide media attention. The Laramie Project is a gripping tour through the actual spoken words of Laramie people drawn from hundreds of hours of interviews to show the outrage, the sense of being unfairly singled out, the quiet hope for change among gay and lesbian residents and the sometimes callous behavior of journalists. With the possible exception of the ongoing Wyoming State Archives collection of oral histories from those at the crime’s epicenter, the play, which is still widely performed, is the fullest extant record of the feelings and impressions of those who lived the story.
In the theatre company’s 2009 follow-up The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, many characters extensively critique the local response, the spotlight the town endured, and in a real sense, one another. The dramatists clearly came to conclude that some who wished for a more open and accepting Laramie see signs of this, while others despair of it ever happening. Among those who yearn for a Laramie free of the crime’s stain, some found that happening. Others did not. Mythology and storytelling, one University of Wyoming folklorist and professor told the theater company, play as deep a role in the remembrance of history as do news reports and personal memories.
The play’s overwhelming takeaway is that we remember what we want, how we want and all the more intensely when events leave us with impressions we abhor. Both plays are mostly produced far from Wyoming, occasionally protested, often brightly lit by local publicity. When cast members are interviewed about their role in a production, one of them usually tells a reporter something to the effect that it made him or her wonder how their local community would react to a similar crime–better, worse or about the same as the people of Laramie did?
Matthew Shepard Foundation
Another remaining national legacy is the victim’s namesake LGBT-rights charity, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, now in its 15th year of operation from Casper, Wyo., and Denver offices. Because its work is meaningful and close to my heart, I came to serve as the director of the foundation. We send Judy Shepard and other speakers to schools, community groups and workplaces nationwide and increasingly abroad to encourage more straight allies to back the LGBT civil rights movement, provide inspiration and encouragement to gay and lesbian youth and advocate constructive social change, among other programs and resources.
Inside Wyoming, the tragedy of Matt’s murder and the legacy of his life have played out not only in the politics of LGBT legislation, but also in the social fabric of the state.
Wyoming hate-crime bills
By 1998, Wyoming legislators had offered bills for several years to join the majority of states that have laws addressing crimes motivated by bias, but they had been stifled by committees. The call from across the country for Wyoming to address hate crimes came loud and clear after the Shepard murder and met with a mixed, but not wholly negative response, from Gov. Jim Geringer, who voiced some openness to sentence enhancement legislation.
As the general session opened in Cheyenne the winter after the murder, a hate-crime bill including sexual-orientation bias made its way to the House floor for the first—and only—time, spurring lengthy and obviously personal debate. Ultimately, the proposed legislation failed on a 30-30 tie. One conservative Democrat, regretting his vote against the bill, moved for reconsideration the following day and changed to a yes vote. However, a previously supportive GOP member switched the other way and doomed the bill again. The Senate defeated two further bills in committee the following week.
No such legislation has since made any serious progress. For several years now, no such legislation has even been introduced. The topic appears to be resolved to lawmakers’ satisfaction, with Wyoming one of only five states with no such law covering any type of bias crime. (The others are Arkansas, Indiana, South Carolina, and, after a state supreme-court strikedown in 2004, Georgia.)
Wyoming same-sex marriage bills
Recent years’ hottest LGBT legislative debates in Wyoming have circled around same-sex marriage, and the effort by a persistent subset of lawmakers to repeal the Equality State’s 1872 territorial statute recognizing, without exception, marriages performed elsewhere. With a growing number of same-sex couples legally marrying around the country and world, some in the Wyoming Legislature seek either a statutory or constitutional carve-out of same-sex nuptials to deprive of official recognition any such couples who find their way to Wyoming. Countless committee and floor debates have ensued on this topic; Matthew Shepard’s name has seldom failed to be raised by supporters of marriage equality, pointing to the black eye the state has in its gay-rights record and the chance of a renewed negative impression a same-sex marriage ban might produce.
Each of these bills has failed, typically by a hairsplitting margin and only after acrimonious public input from both sides. Wyoming remains one of only two states in its region without a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. (The other, New Mexico, perhaps surprisingly, now faces numerous court challenges over refusal to issue same-sex couples marriage licenses). Wyoming’s difference with its neighbors on the issue may not be a direct legacy of the Shepard case, but it does stand as an anomaly that is otherwise hard to explain.
Wyoming’s gay community
The visibility and organization of Wyoming’s LGBT community markedly increased after the murder as well. Many of us—and I was one, in a Star-Tribune column on October 13, 1998—came out of the closet. The gay community’s profile was never quite so low as some media accounts at the time had suggested–a statewide and a university group both had been well organized before the murder and Matt had, in fact, been at a University of Wyoming Spectrum meeting just hours before his death.
But the community is unquestionably more prominent now, with Gay-Straight Alliances or diversity education programs established at several high schools around the state. Two openly gay people have now been elected to office in the state–one, Guy Padgett, my partner of 15 years and also a friend of Matt’s, and the other, Cathy Connolly, a UW women’s studies professor whose experience of the crime’s aftermath features prominently in The Laramie Project and its sequel. Padgett served on the Casper City Council, including one year as mayor; Connolly serves in the Wyoming Legislature.
Connolly and supportive allies in the Legislature have begun to open progressive debates on anti-discrimination statutes and civil unions in recent sessions, with slow steps forward. The university finally joined the movement to offer same-sex partners some limited benefits. And pride picnics, Coming Out Day celebrations and other community events have increased in frequency and size. Shepard is not always spoken of in these contexts, but his memory never feels far from the topic at hand. For all these years, the monthly newsletter of the statewide LGBT group Wyoming Equality includes a small ad tucked somewhere inside called “Matt’s Corner.” It shows a solitary candle burning and the words, “NEVER AGAIN.”
The impact of the story
There really isn’t much question in my mind that the intense media attention, and all the eyes looking in on our small state and our small LGBT community, impelled these changes in a way a similar murder overlooked by the press could not have. The sometimes unfathomable rules by which news stories rise or fall in prominence cannot be unpacked here. Perhaps it would suffice to say that powerful stories, be they in the newspaper or in storybooks, share certain characteristics: compelling characters, exotic settings, dramatic changes of circumstance, cliffhanger endings. Especially to the outside observer unfamiliar with Wyoming, Shepard’s story shared them all.
How historians will come to assess the impact this single crime had on the fabric of American gay life, and Wyoming’s social fabric, remains to be determined. A half-dozen or so books--some scholarly and others personal memoirs—explore the topic, as do volumes of poetry, a TV movie and countless lengthy articles and papers. The preservation of copious oral accounts will bear fruit for continued scholarship, and the routine emergence of legislative debates seems assured for the foreseeable future. I feel it unlikely that many such accounts will capture much of the lived truth of those closest to the situation. But the continuing activism done in Matthew Shepard’s name, in his honor or simply in his spirit will almost certainly keep adding to the crime’s impact on the state and on the LGBT civil rights movement nationwide.
- Aarons, Roy. “The Matthew Shepard Story: From Bloodshed to Watershed,” NewsWatch, Spring 1999, 12.
- De la Cruz, Donna. “NYPD Sued over Shepard Vigil,” The Associated Press, Nov. 12, 1998.
- Dotinga, Randy. “In Grief, Reporter Exits the Closet,” Editor & Publisher, Oct. 24, 1998, 9.
- “Gay Student Attacked in Wyoming,” The Associated Press, Oct. 9, 1998.
- Geringer, Jim, governor of Wyoming. “Comments,” Oct. 12, 1998, via broadcast facsimile
- Kaufman, Moises, et. al. The Laramie Project. New York: Dramtists Play Service, 2000.
- Kaufman, Moises, et. al. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2009.
- Loffreda, Beth. Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
- Marsden, Jason. “Matthew’s Mother,” Alternatives [National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association], Fall 1999, 8.
- Minkowitz, Donna. “Love and Hate in Laramie,” The Nation, July 12, 1999, 18.
- Shepard, Judy. The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed. New York: Hudson Street Press, 2009.
- “Shepard Vigil Set for U.S. Capitol,” Casper Star-Tribune, Oct. 14, 1998, B6.
- Thernstrom, Melanie. “The Crucifixion of Matthew Shepard,” Vanity Fair, March 1999, 209.
- State of Wyoming vs. Aaron James McKinney, Docket No. 6381, in the District Court for the Second Judicial District of Wyoming, the Hon. Barton R. Voigt presiding. (Transcript, in two volumes, 1999).
- The photos of the candlelight vigil and the fence where Shepard was beaten are by Dan Cepeda of the Casper Star Tribune. Used with permission and thanks.
- The photo of the recent production of The Laramie Project is by Alan Zenreich, courtesy of the Bergen County Players of Oradell, N.J. Used with thanks.