Gay man’s slaying still divides Wyoming
Shepard’s 1998 death spurred hate crime laws
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.