Matthew Shepard: National Headline and Never Forgotten

Many of you probably came to this page to either be very supportive or wanting something to be mad about. When it comes to Matthew, it doesn’t seem like there’s many other opinions. But, I’m not here to tell you about social issues, or diversity struggles that Wyoming has had. I’m here to talk about the boy who died. The boy who had parents. The boy who had a younger brother who has had to live most of his life without an older brother. It doesn’t matter why he died, but that he did, and the impact that his death has had on the University of Wyoming and Wyoming as a whole.

    Matthew was born in Casper, Wyoming in 1976 to parents Judy and Dennis, and later got a younger brother named Logan. After going to school mostly in Casper, his father was hired by Saudi Aramco and Matthew moved with his family where he attended the American School in Switzerland and graduated in May 1995. On a school trip to Morocco in February of 1995, Matthew was beaten and raped, causing him to experience depression and panic attacks. As anyone could imagine, this was a very hard time for someone who his parents described as “an optimistic and accepting young man.”

    A few years later, he ended up attending UW as a first-year political science major. After the Morocco incident, Matthew, who identified as homosexual, still had struggles with depression and one of his friends in college, Tina, told reporters that she feared it had drawn him to drug use. There was another account by a man named Tom, who ran a limousine service, that said Matthew told Tom he was HIV-positive and considering suicide. A few days after, on October 6th, 1998, Matthew was tied to a fence and brutally injured. He later died in a hospital in Fort Collins, CO from the injuries.

    Regardless of why Matthew was murdered, the fact still remains that this had a giant effect on the Laramie and University of Wyoming community. This was national news. Because of his sexuality, the news, as it often does, immediately clung to the hate crime story. Media outlets from all over the country descended on Laramie. There were protests on both sides, and opinions and hate being shouted from the rooftops. It was even reported that tensions became so high that Matthew’s father wore a bulletproof vest under his suit at his funeral service.

(Anti-Gay protesters in Laramie after Matthew’s death)

Even though this happened almost twenty years ago, Laramie is still growing because of it. Even if it wasn’t a hate crime, Laramie has become the biggest supporter of equality and diversity in Wyoming. UW has become a place where people of all walks of life can be accepted and have the ability to learn in peace. Yes, there will always be people who discriminate, but UW as an institution, Laramie as a city, and Wyoming as a state have made tremendous strides from the stigma of being a “hateful conservative red state.” Wyoming is a state of opportunity and one of the most welcoming places I’ve ever been. We aren’t rednecks, we aren’t all conservatives, and we have a real love for our communities. Even if that was the case then, we’ve made sure to prove that in the aftermath of Matthew’s murder.

    The lesson from this is to always understand the full story. Sure, we can use a story to our advantage so we can validate our beliefs and feel empowered by the fact that something proved we were right. We can also beat our chests and show how wrong something is, but that’s not the point. This boy died and left behind a family. It doesn’t matter if it was drug-related, it doesn’t matter if it was a hate crime. The boys who killed him would still have the same sentences, and he is still not with us. This is the same when we talk about school shootings and police shootings. There are always people on each side of the story, and many times, we just treat those people as names, instead of family members or spouses, in order to solidify our social beliefs of discrimination or injustice.  What I mostly want to say is this, whenever you see a headline or a new story about a shooting or a hate crime, remember those are people. It could have been your friend, your neighbor, your cousin. It could have been you. Always be sensitive to the family, and get the facts before you give into the hype.

(Dennis and Judy Shepard, Matthew’s parents)