Gay man was bru­tally killed 20 years ago

Matthew Shep­ard’s death in Wy­oming made in­ter­na­tional head­lines

Lodi News-Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Katie King

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.

MEL MEL­CON/LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES FILE PHO­TO­GRAPH

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.

ANDY ROGERS/COLORADO SPRINGS GAZETTE

Matt Mick­el­son owns the fire­side bar in Laramie, Wy­oming, where Matthew Shep­hard met his mur­der­ers.

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