Shepard, Matthew Wayne 1976–1998
Shepard, Matthew Wayne
Matthew Shepard, born on December 1 in Casper, Wyoming, was a University of Wyoming undergraduate whose murder sparked nationwide debate about antibias and hate crime laws and drew attention to the persistence and brutality of homophobic violence in a decade that purported to celebrate tolerance and diversity. Many details surrounding the crime—that Shepard was a good-looking, middle-class white man; the false media reports that he had been found tied in a position suggesting crucifixion; and that the crime occurred in a part of the United States identified with the masculine cowboy mythology—thrust the case into the national spotlight and made Shepard a household name.
On the night of October 6, 1998, Shepard attended a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Association (LGBTA) meeting at the University of Wyoming and later went to a bar alone. He was approached by two young locals, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The pair lured Shepard out of the bar with the offer of a ride. McKinney pistol-whipped Shepard in the car, as Henderson drove to an elevated site on the outskirts of the town. Henderson used Shepard's shoelaces to tie him to a wooden fence with his hands behind his back. McKinney and Henderson then stole Shepard's shoes and wallet and left him badly beaten and unconscious with severe head injuries. Later that evening, the two men provoked another violent incident, this time involving two Laramie men of Hispanic descent—Jeremy Herrera and Emiliano Morales. Shepard was found eighteen hours after the attack, barely breathing, by a teenager bike riding nearby.
Henderson and McKinney were arrested days later. The media descended on Laramie and followed the story closely through the trials. Vigils and protests took place across the country and Shepard became a symbol of antigay violence and a martyr for the gay rights movement. Right-wing Christian and antigay protestor, Fred Phelps, headed a group of demonstrators who condemned homosexuality and suggested that Shepard deserved to die. Shepard's friend Romaine Patterson and another group of protestors countered by blocking Phelps and his followers from public view with the long, draping wings of their angel costumes.
Many were offended by the fact that McKinney and Henderson pursued a gay panic defense, suggesting that Shepard had made sexual advances toward the two men thus justifying the attack. Before verdicts were reached, both pleaded guilty. Neither man showed much remorse for the crime. At McKinney's sentencing, Shepard's father read a moving statement and asked for two consecutive life sentences rather than the death penalty. Henderson received a life sentence, while McKinney received the two consecutive terms.
In the aftermath of the events, media, artistic, and critical commentary about the case focused on the intricacies and contradictions of rural gay life, the state of Wyoming's ultimate failure to institute bias crime legislation and legal protection based on sexual orientation in the year after the murder, and the impact of the events on the town of Laramie. Scholarly work has considered how race and class impacted the crime and the media coverage and raised questions about the politicization of Shepard's murder. A theater troupe from New York City, Moisés Kaufman's Tectonic Theater Project, visited Laramie a number of times over the course of one year to interview residents. These discussions resulted in The Laramie Project (2001), a play later turned into a film (2002) that told the stories of many of Laramie's residents and others involved in the case, such as Reggie Fluty, the deputy who was the first to arrive at the gruesome scene. Shepard's murder has also been associated with less-publicized hate crimes, such as the 1998 racially-motivated killing of black Texan James Byrd Jr., who was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck by three white men.
Shepard's parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, became gay rights activists and advocates for hate crimes legislation. In 1998 they founded the nonprofit Matthew Shepard Foundation, which serves as a vehicle for the advocacy of gay rights issues and provides support for educational programs and gay youth organizations.
Kaufman, Moisés and the members of Tectonic Theater Project. 2001. The Laramie Project. New York: Vintage Books.
Loffreda, Beth. 2000. Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder. New York: Columbia University Press.
The Laramie Project. Dir. Moisés Kaufman, with Peter Fonda, Janeane Garofalo, Terry Kinney, Laura Linney, and Amy Madigan. 2002.