Shep­ard’s mur­der still haunts, di­vides Wy­oming

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - RTD WEATHER DESK -

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.”

THE MATTHEW SHEP­ARD FOUN­DA­TION

Matthew Shep­ard, pic­tured in 1989, died on Oct. 12, 1998, af­ter he was beaten and left to die.

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