Gay man was brutally killed 20 years ago
Matthew Shepard’s death in Wyoming made international headlines
Jane Ifland didn’t know Matthew Shepard. He wasn’t a relative or a friend, a co-worker or a former classmate. To the best of her knowledge, the Casper activist said, the two never crossed paths.
But on Oct. 16, 1998, she was among the hundreds of mourners who attended his funeral at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper.
As she stood Sunday in the shadow of St. Mark’s, Ifland explained she wanted to show support for Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming whom two men brutally beat and left to die on a fence post outside Laramie.
The murder — now one of the most notorious hate crimes in America’s history — caught the attention of the Westboro Baptist Church, which sent some of its followers to Shepard’s funeral to protest the LGBTQ community.
“That all happened over there,” said Ifland, her brown eyes tearing up as she pointed in the direction of a grassy square park across the street from St. Mark’s.
The park and its surrounding streets were quiet and mostly empty Sunday afternoon. A handful of children played on a swingset as church bells rang out the time.
It was a different scene on the day of Shepard’s funeral, Ifland said. Television stations sent mobile crews, and police officers were separating the Westboro protesters from counterprotesters.
Ifland said she doesn’t recall the exact shouts or insults being hurled; that part has faded over time. But the weather is ingrained in her memory.
“The rain was falling in globules — it was like tears,” Ifland said. “There was no lightning or thunder, just tears soaking everything.”
The rain turned to sleet, then snow, and tree branches began cracking and breaking under the weight, Ifland said.
She recalled thinking it was as if the city itself was “gnashing its teeth.”
Ifland said the community was somber in the following months. Residents grieved for Shepard, a Casper native who attended Natrona County High School.
“There was mourning,” she said. “There still is.”
That grief eventually sparked a conversation about how a community should fight back against hate.
“It was a difficult time for Wyoming,” current Casper Mayor Ray Pacheco said. “Life was lost in this brutal murder, and we really had to talk about what kind of a community we wanted to be.”
Two decades later, that discussion is still going on.
Last year, the local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) approached the Casper City Council and asked its members to pass a nondiscrimination resolution. Resolutions lack the teeth of an ordinance, but the advocacy group’s representatives said it would be a meaningful gesture of goodwill.
After months of discussion, the resolution passed 6 to 3 during the Council’s Feb. 20 meeting.
For Pacheco, it wasn’t an easy decision. The self-described devout Catholic said he researched the issue, prayed about it and sought input from many constituents.
The mayor ultimately concluded that it was not overstepping the bounds of government, or going against the teachings of Jesus Christ, to state that LGBTQ residents deserve equal access to jobs, housing, health care and other services.
“First and foremost, religion and faith are about caring for others...” Pacheco said, moments before voting to approve the measure Feb. 20. “I choose to believe that Christ wept as our brothers and sisters were murdered that night at the (LGBTQ) club shooting in Orlando. I also choose to believe that Christ sat next to Matthew Shepard in the cold Laramie wind as he lay dying.”
Residents on both sides of the issue packed the Council’s chambers the night of the vote for a passionate, three-hour debate. Janet de Vries was among those in attendance.
“I was on pins and needles,” she said as she removed her rainbow-print scarf and settled into a sofa Monday at Metro Coffee Co. in downtown Casper.
De Vries has lived in Casper for decades. She and her partner, Leanne, tried to keep their relationship secret for years. The couple feared Leanne would lose her job with the Natrona County School District if she came out, according to de Vries.
When the couple spotted any of Leanne’s co-workers at the mall or grocery store, de Vries said she quickly darted the other way. Other times, Leanne would introduce her as a friend.
It was nerve-wracking and made their relationship seem dishonest, she recalled.
“I don’t think people understand how we (in the LGBTQ community) lived secret lives,” she said. “They don’t understand the stress we lived under.”
The couple no longer hides its relationship. Leanne retired a few years ago, and society as a whole is generally more accepting, de Vries said.
But she said it was still meaningful to hear the city’s leaders declare that LGBTQ citizens have the right to exist, the right to hold jobs or rent apartments, just like any other taxpaying citizen.
It was an important step, said de Vries, who hopes a statewide ordinance is on the horizon.
“We don’t want to be known as the place where the gay university student was murdered,” she said. “Yet we don’t pass any anti-discrimination laws at the state level. It’s disappointing for me, and it’s a disgrace for the entire state.”
Casper isn’t the only municipality in the state that’s enacted a nondiscrimination measure to support LGBTQ citizens.
In the last several years, Gillette, Douglas and Cheyenne also passed nondiscrimination resolutions that referenced the LGBTQ community. Meanwhile, Laramie and Jackson established ordinances, which offer legal protections for those who are discriminated against due to their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Judy Shepard and her husband, Dennis, in Casper, Wyoming, on Sept. 17, 2013. Their son, Matthew, was killed 20 years ago in an anti-gay crime that made international news.
Matt Mickelson owns the fireside bar in Laramie, Wyoming, where Matthew Shephard met his murderers.