Shepard’s murder still haunts, divides Wyoming
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 sandy-haired 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.
“Once people find out I’m from Laramie, Wyoming, 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 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.
Attitudes against homosexuality persist in Wyoming, but LGTBQ acceptance has advanced, said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
“Twenty years on, it’s a heck of a lot closer to being a place where people can enjoy their lives more or less equally,” said Marsden, who was a newspaper reporter and friend of Shepard’s at the time of his killing.
The convicted killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, are each serving two consecutive life sentences.
McKinney repeatedly used homosexual slurs in his confession, Marsden said. McKinney’s lawyers wanted to argue Shepard caused McKinney to explode in a rage by putting his hand on McKinney’s leg, but the judge prohibited the “gay panic” defense.
Henderson, now 41, said the U.S. should have laws that protect everyone.
“As tragic as it is, and as unfortunate as it is, and as hard as it is for Matthew’s family, and for my family, for all of us, to go through, it opened up all of us to be better people and really think about who we are,” Henderson said of Shepard’s death in a prison interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.
He insisted that neither he nor McKinney was motivated by anti-gay hatred when they offered Shepard a ride home from a bar. He said they were out to rob him when they drove him to the edge of town on the night of Oct. 6, 1998.
He described himself as a follower. As Henderson drove, McKinney began pistol-whipping Shepard and took his wallet. Henderson tied Shepard to the fence after McKinney told him to do it, he said. They then left Shepard in the frigid darkness.
The next day, a mountain biker found Shepard. He died less than a week later, on Oct.
12, 1998, at age 21.
Burlingame, of the Wyoming Equality group, said her organization will continue its “unapologetic advocacy,” reaching out to churches, businesses, legislators and regular citizens about their policies and attitudes.
“For the last 20 years, the work of Wyoming Equality has really been this race, that we want to get to every LGBT person out there,” Burlingame said. “But we’re also trying to get to the next Aarons and the next Russells.”
Matthew Shepard, pictured in 1989, died on Oct. 12, 1998, after he was beaten and left to die.