Haunted by the mem­ory of Matthew Shep­ard’s mur­der

The Times-Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - BY MEAD GRUVER

It has been 20 years since two roof­ing work­ers beat a young gay man to death in Wy­oming. The emo­tions stirred by Matthew Shep­ard’s 1998 mur­der linger as the state strug­gles with — and re­sists — changes sought by the LGBTQ com­mu­nity.

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 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.”

Ac­ri­mony runs HIGH

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 gayrights protesters squared off at his fu­neral in Casper. Even now, peo­ple as­so­ciate Laramie with the mur­der.

“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.

Re­luc­tance per­sists

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 anti­gay 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.

At­ti­tudes against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity per­sist in Wy­oming, but LGTBQ ac­cep­tance has ad­vanced, said Ja­son Mars­den, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Den­ver-based 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.

Killer speaks

The con­victed killers, Aaron Mckin­ney and Rus­sell Henderson, are each serv­ing two con­sec­u­tive life sen­tences.

Henderson, now 41, said the U.S. should have laws that pro­tect every­one, no mat­ter who they are.

“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.

Still, he in­sisted, nei­ther he nor Mckin­ney was mo­ti­vated by anti-gay ha­tred when they of­fered Shep­ard a ride home from a bar. In­stead, he said, they were out to rob him of money and pos­si­bly drugs when they drove him to the edge of town on the night of Oct. 6, 1998.


A cross made of stones rests be­low the fence in Laramie, Wyo., in 1999 where a year ear­lier, Uni­ver­sity of Wy­oming stu­dent Matthew Shep­ard was tied and pis­tol whipped into a coma. He later died.


The mur­der of Matthew Shep­ard, a gay Uni­ver­sity of Wy­oming stu­dent, shown in 1995, was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for gay rights and LGBTQ ac­cep­tance in the U.S.

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