Today’s GLBT History Month icon is Matthew Shepard (December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998). The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard shone a national spotlight on anti-GLBT hate crimes and for Shepard’s parents was the the start of a new life of devotion to GLBT causes and advocacy.
From Equality Forum:
Shepard was born in Casper, Wyoming, to Judy and Dennis Shepard. He was the older of two sons. Matthew completed high school at The American School in Switzerland. In 1998, he enrolled at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Soon afterward, he joined the campus gay alliance.
On October 6, 1998, two men—Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson—lured Shepard from a downtown Laramie bar. After Shepard acknowledged that he was gay, McKinney and Henderson beat and tortured him, then tied him to a tree in a remote, rural area and left him for dead. Eighteen hours later, a biker, who thought he saw a scarecrow, found Shepard barely breathing.
Shepard was rushed to the hospital, but never regained consciousness. He died on October 12. Both of Shepard’s killers were convicted of felony murder and are serving two consecutive life sentences.
Despite the outcome of the trial, the men who took Shepard’s life were not charged with a hate crime. Wyoming has no hate crimes law, which protects victims of crimes motivated by bias against a protected class. Shepard’s high-profile murder case sparked protests, vigils and calls for federal hate crimes legislation for GLBT victims of violence.
Shortly after their son’s death, Judy and Dennis Shepard founded The Matthew Shepard Foundation to honor his memory and to “replace hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance.” Judy Shepard became a GLBT activist and the most recognized voice in the fight for a federal hate crimes bill.
In 2009, more than a decade after Shepard’s murder, The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) was signed into law. HCPA added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes, giving the United States Department of Justice the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violent crimes against GLBT victims.
Dozens of songs have been written and recorded to honor Matthew Shepard’s legacy. Several films, television movies and plays about him have been produced, including “The Laramie Project” (2002) and “The Matthew Shepard Story” (2002).
It may be of interest to readers that, when the so-called “gay panic defense” Aaron McKinney’s lawyers tried to advance proved ineffective in earning McKinney a lesser sentence, it was at the request of Shepard’s parents that McKinney was spared capital punishment. Instead, he received two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of appeal or parole.
Also, while it may be that Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptists are now most infamous for protesting soldiers’ funerals, they also picketed both Shepard’s funeral and the subsequent murder trial, holding up signs with slogans like “Matt in Hell.”
However, mourners at Shepard’s funeral helped to shield the grieving family with umbrellas, and counter-protesters at the trial also famously wore white angel costumes which, when they raised their arms, blanketed out the Phelps’ hateful signs.
This peaceful act would later become one of the enduring symbols of Matthew Shepard’s legacy alongside the idea that together, we can all erase hate.
Below you can see a rare recording of Matthew Shepard during a chance interview on-campus at Wyoming State University:
Last, here is an interview with Judy Shepard from OurSceneTV in which Judy discusses Matthew’s life, the trial, and why she believes hate crime laws are important:
Books about Matthew Shepard:
Videos and Films Related to Matthew Shepard:
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