Gay man’s slay­ing still di­vides Wy­oming

Shep­ard’s 1998 death spurred hate crime laws

Albuquerque Journal - - NATION & WORLD - BY MEAD GRUVER

LARAMIE, Wyo. — When two roof­ing work­ers beat a young gay man to death in Wy­oming in 1998, the grue­some crime quickly re­ver­ber­ated around the U.S. and turned the sandy­haired col­lege stu­dent into a pow­er­ful sym­bol of the quest for ac­cep­tance and equal rights.

But two decades af­ter Matthew Shep­ard was blud­geoned, tied to a rail fence and left to die on the cold high prairie, the emo­tions stirred up by his slay­ing linger in Wy­oming, which still strug­gles with its tar­nished iden­tity and re­sists changes sought by the LGBTQ com­mu­nity.

“We’re nowhere near done,” said Sara Burlingame, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cheyenne-based LGBTQ ad­vo­cacy group Wy­oming Equal­ity. The group’s work to­day “is the same thing that was there 20 years ago.”

As re­cently as Tues­day, days be­fore the an­niver­sary of Shep­ard’s death, about 200 peo­ple at­tended a fo­rum in Laramie ques­tion­ing the pre­vail­ing view that he was mur­dered be­cause of his sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Wy­oming Equal­ity protested by hold­ing a dance at a civic cen­ter down the street, us­ing the slo­gan “When They Go Low … We Go Dance.”

The ac­ri­mony over Shep­ard’s legacy runs high here, just as it did when anti-gay and gay-rights protesters squared off at his fu­neral in Casper.

“Once peo­ple find out I’m from Laramie, Wyo., they still zero in on this hate crime,” said Trudy Mc­Craken, who spoke at the fo­rum and was Laramie’s mayor at the time of the slay­ing.

Wy­oming re­mains “deeply de­fen­sive” about the idea that Shep­ard was tar­geted be­cause he was gay, Burlingame said.

Known as the Equal­ity State, Wy­oming got its nick­name for be­ing the first to let women vote. To­day it has fewer women in its Leg­is­la­ture than any other state and re­mains hes­i­tant to adopt poli­cies to counter anti-gay bias and vi­o­lence.

It is among just five states — along with Ar­kan­sas, Ge­or­gia, In­di­ana and South Carolina — that have not passed laws fo­cused on crimes mo­ti­vated by the vic­tim’s iden­tity, such as their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama signed a fed­eral hate crime preven­tion act named af­ter Shep­ard in 2009, a law that Shep­ard’s mother, Judy Shep­ard, said has been help­ful.

Laramie did not pass an or­di­nance bar­ring dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­tity un­til 2015. The Uni­ver­sity of Wy­oming cre­ated its di­ver­sity of­fice only last year.

At­tor­neys for Wy­oming in 2014 ar­gued in de­fense of the state’s def­i­ni­tion of mar­riage as only be­tween a man and a woman, a case later ren­dered moot by higher court rul­ings.


Stu­dents sing at a vigil against vi­o­lence at Prexy’s Pas­ture on the Uni­ver­sity of Wy­oming cam­pus in Laramie, Wyo., in 1999.

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