Haunted by the memory of Matthew Shepard’s murder
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.
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.
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.