On a fateful night, twenty one years ago on October 6, 1998, a young gay man named Matthew Shepherd stopped into a bar in Laramie, Wyoming for a drink and encountered two local young men, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney who decided they would pretend to be gay in order to lure Matthew from the bar into their truck in a ploy to rob him. This plan escalated into a violent situation as these two men drove Matthew to a remote field of sagebrush, took his wallet which held a $20.00 bill and proceeded to pistol whip him with the barrel of a Smith & Wesson gun, McKinney struck Matthew’s head approximately 21 times which resulted in a crushed brain stem, four skull fractures and deep lacerations. Before this, Henderson used a clothesline to tie him to a fence located in the field and removed his shoes and left him for dead in the cold Wyoming air where he remained for 18 hours until a passing teenager who was riding past saw what he thought to be a scarecrow lying tied to a fence. Policewoman Reggie Fluty responded to the scene and was understandably horrified at the sight of a barely responsive and injured young man tied to the fence. As she attempted to perform CPR, she discovered that his mouth was clamped shut and she held him, begging him to hold on and whispering words of encouragement into his ear while she stared up at the star filled Wyoming sky, tears rolling down her face. Matthew was transported to the hospital where he was placed on breathing tubes and never regained consciousness as he passed away six days later October 12, 1998. This crime ignited anger within the LGBTQ community and sparked outrage across the world, a young innocent man robbed at gunpoint and left to die in a field, alone in the freezing cold.
Leading up to the trial, the prosecution at the urging of Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepherd worked to get the death penalty sentence for the perpetrators of the crime, Henderson testified against McKinney to avoid the death penalty and was awarded two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole and a gag order to avoid any appeal. In a separate trial, McKinney was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole. Dennis Shepherd addressed the jury and the defendants in a powerful speech promising to never forgive his son’s killers but ultimately decided that healing and mercy was needed and decided that life spent in prison permanently was the best outcome for this tragedy. Representatives from the hateful Westboro Baptist Church picketed Matthew’s funeral with their customary signs proclaiming Thank God for AIDS and God Hates Fags and came back to protest at Henderson’s trial but to steal the spotlight away from the protestors, local Laramie residents donned angel like costumes made of white sheets and using PVC pipe to emulate wings as they stood in silence facing down the protestors. Dubbed the angel action, this effective counter protest was used years later when Westboro arrived to protest at the funerals of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando.
Although this was a horrible event in which the promising life of a young man was brutally cut short primarily due to his sexual orientation, Matthew had dreams of working as a diplomat in Washington DC, hate crime legislation was passed in 2009 as the Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Legislation was signed into law by then President Barack Obama, this act requires the FBI to track statistics on hate crimes based on gender and gender identity and expands the 1969 federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Last year, Matthew’s ashes were laid to rest in the National Cathedral and a collection of his personal items is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. Judy Shephard launched the Matthew Shephard Foundation to embrace and promote human dignity through outreach, advocacy and outreach programs and to replace hatred with understanding, compassion and acceptance.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, there is much work to be done as Wyoming is one of five U.S states that have no criminal hate crime law and in another 15 states, hate crimes do not expressively cover a victim’s sexual orientation. In 29 states, a person identifying as LGBTQ can be dismissed from their job due to their sexual orientation. With the rising of religious anti extreme groups and the current federal administration, progress on equality has slowed even on the heels of same sex marriage becoming the law of the land a few years ago. Together we must create a culture of respect, inclusion and welcome diversity so that no one is singled out for who they are or who they love. The fence that Matthew was tied to has long since been torn down but the images of an injured and barely breathing young man remain in the memories of the young man who found him, the law officer who was called to the scene and for all of us who followed this story. We can never forget Matthew and what he represents, a call for each of us to do our part, to look out for each other, to compose and pass laws that will legally punish those who are found guilty of hate induced crimes and to give a voice to those who deserve to be heard. After all, if we do not learn from the mistakes of our past, we are condemned to repeat them. Let us ensure that love conquers hate and do whatever it takes to make that simple idea become a reality. The alternative is no longer acceptable, ever.