Excerpt from "Dennis Shepard's Statements to the Court"
Spoken by Dennis Shepard
Published by the Matthew Shepard Foundation
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons face daily prejudice and threats simply because of their sexual orientation—the same-sex attractions. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in agreement with the National Mental Health Association, found that about 50 percent of gay men and 20 percent of lesbians were verbally or physically abused in high school in the early twenty-first century. Teenagers surveyed were more prejudiced against gay people than against any other minority group. School is a setting many gay or lesbian students learn to dread. A majority of teens surveyed said that if it came out that they were gay, they would expect hostilities to be directed toward them.
Actions range from anti-gay verbal harassment to violent beatings. Such attacks have lasting, harmful effects on the victims' mental and physical well-being and their ability to succeed in school. Those who witness such actions are also adversely affected.
"You made the world realize that a person's lifestyle is not a reason for discrimination, intolerance, persecution, and violence. This is not the 1920s, 30s, and 40s of Nazi Germany. My son died because of your ignorance and intolerance."
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth grow up just as straight youth, with a need for acceptance, freedom of self-expression, and love. This maturing process is difficult for straight youth. For those who are part of a minority that daily experiences prejudice, discrimination and outright hatred, growing up can be excruciating. Family is often a refuge for ethnic-minority young people who experience prejudice. However, family members frequently find it difficult to accept that a son, daughter, niece, or nephew is gay or lesbian. Likewise, gay and lesbians generally cannot turn to churches for help. Most churches either totally condemn same-sex attraction or have continuous heated and divisive debates on the issue.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one-year-old gay student, attended the University of Wyoming in Laramie, majoring in political science and foreign relations. Although Matthew had a loving, supportive family, just as many other gay young people, he had experienced anti-gay harassment.
Matthew was born in Casper, Wyoming, on December 1, 1976, to Judy and Dennis Shepard. He attended school in Casper through his sophomore year in high school. When his parents moved to Saudi Arabia for employment, Matt spent his junior and senior years at the American School in Lugano, Switzerland. He also traveled throughout Europe. Matt's parents knew their son was gay and quietly accepted it. They focused on Matt's exceptional ability to work with people and were pleased how easily he made friends.
On the night of October 7, 1998, Matthew left a campus bar with Aaron McKinney, age twenty-two, and Russell Arthur Henderson, age twenty-one, who told Matt they were gay. In a remote area east of Laramie, on Snowy Mountain View Road, they tied Matt to a fence post, beat and tortured him, and left him to die. Eighteen hours later, Matt was found by a cyclist. He died of massive head injuries surrounded by family at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, just after midnight on October 12, 1998. Matthew's funeral, on Friday, October 16, was attended by friends he had made throughout the world. Matthew was apparently chosen for kidnapping because he was gay.
To avoid trial and possible death penalty, Henderson pled guilty in April 1999 to murder and kidnapping. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms without parole. In November 1999 a jury in Laramie, Wyoming, convicted McKinney of second degree murder, robbery, and kidnapping of Shepard.
The following excerpt is from Dennis Shepard's statement to the court at the sentencing hearing for McKinney. His statement lovingly revealed deep respect for Matthew, his grief at the loss of his son, his understanding that his son died because he was gay, and his anger toward McKinney.
Things to remember while reading excerpts from "Dennis Shepard's Statements to the Court":
- Much of the U.S. population at the start of the twenty-first century continued to be homophobic. Homophobic describes people's prejudicial fear and hatred of homosexuals, those persons who hold same-sex attractions, both gays and lesbians. For many Americans, homosexuals are sinful, perverse, unworthy humans.
- In order to foster a healthier atmosphere, parents of gay and lesbian children, educators, counselors, and other interested persons attempt to open discussions about understanding, compassion, and acceptance of those with same-sex orientation in order to educate more and more of society. This is done both formally, via organizations, and on a more personal, local level, in schools.
- Matthew did not hide that he was gay. His father stated that Matt "quietly let it be known that he was gay" and that he believed his son's stand was courageous.
Excerpt from "Dennis Shepard's Statements to the Court"
November 4, 1999
Your honor, members of the Jury, Mr. Rerucha [prosecuting attorney]: I would like to begin my statement by addressing the jury. Ladies and gentlemen, a terrible crime was committed in Laramie thirteen months ago. Because of that crime, the reputation of the city of Laramie, the University of Wyoming, and the State of Wyoming became synonymous with gay bashing, hate crimes (violent attacks against a person because of his race, ethnicity, religion, or gender), and brutality. While some of this reputation may be deserved, it was blown out of proportion by our friends in the media. Yesterday you, the jury, showed the world that Wyoming and the city of Laramie will not tolerate hate crimes. Yes, this was a hate crime, pure and simple, with the added ingredient of robbery. My son Matthew paid a terrible price to open the eyes of all of us who live in Wyoming, the United States, and the world to the unjust and unnecessary fears, discrimination, and intolerance that members of the gay community face every day. Yesterday's decision by you showed true courage and made a statement. That statement is that Wyoming is the Equality State; that Wyoming will not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation; that violence is not the solution. Ladies and gentlemen, you have the respect and admiration of Matthew's family and friends and of countless strangers around the world. Be proud of what you have accomplished. You may have prevented another family from losing a son or daughter….
A trial was necessary to show that this was a hate crime and not just a robbery gone bad….
My son Matthew did not look like a winner. After all, he was small for his age—weighing, at the most, 110 pounds, and standing only 5′2″ tall. He was rather uncoordinated and wore braces from the age of 13 until the day he died. However, in his all too brief life, he proved that he was a winner. My son—a gentle, caring soul—proved that he was as tough as, if not tougher than, anyone I have ever heard of or known. On October 6, 1998, my son tried to show the world that he could win again. On October 12, 1998, my first-born son—and my hero—lost. On October 12, my first-born son—and my hero—died 50 days before his 22nd birthday. He died quietly, surrounded by family and friends, with his mother and brother holding his hand. All that I have left now are the memories.
It's hard to put into words how much Matt meant to family and friends and how much they meant to him. Everyone wanted him to succeed because he tried so hard….
Matt's gift was people. He loved being with people, helping people, and making others feel good. The hope of a better world free of harassment and discrimination because a person was different kept him motivated. All his life he felt the stabs of discrimination. Because of that he was sensitive to other people's feelings. He was naive to the extent that, regardless of the wrongs people did to him, he still had faith that they would change and become "nice." Matt trusted people, perhaps too much. Violence was not a part of his life until his senior year in high school. He would walk into a fight and try to break it up. He was the perfect negotiator. He could get two people talking to each other again as no one else could.
Matt loved people and he trusted them. He could never understand how one person could hurt another, physically or verbally. They would hurt him, and he would give them another chance. This quality of seeing only good gave him friends around the world. He didn't see size, race, intelligence, sex, religion, or the hundred other things that people use to make choices about people. All he saw was the person. All he wanted was to make another person his friend. All he wanted was to make another person feel good. All he wanted was to be accepted as an equal….
I loved my son and, as can be seen throughout this statement, was proud of him. He was not my gay son. He was my son who happened to be gay….
How do I talk about the loss that I feel every time I think about Matt? How can I describe the empty pit in my heart and mind when I think about all the problems that were put in Matt's way that he overcame? No one can understand the sense of pride and accomplishment that I felt every time he reached the mountain top of another obstacle. No one, including myself, will ever know the frustration and agony that others put him through because he was different….
Matt officially died at 12:53 a.m. on Monday, October 12, 1998, in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. He actually died on the outskirts of Laramie tied to a fence that Wednesday before, when you beat him. You, Mr. McKinney, with your friend Mr. Henderson, killed my son….
Matt became a symbol—some say a martyr, putting a boy-next-door face on hate crimes….
My son was taught to look at all sides of an issue before making a decision or taking a stand. He learned this early when he helped campaign for various political candidates while in grade school and junior high. When he did take a stand, it was based on his best judgment. Such a stand cost him his life when he quietly let it be known that he was gay. He didn't advertise it, but he didn't back away from the issue either. For that I'll always be proud of him. He showed me that he was a lot more courageous than most people, including myself. Matt knew that there were dangers to being gay, but he accepted that and wanted to just get on with his life and his ambition of helping others.
Matt's beating, hospitalization, and funeral focused worldwide attention on hate. Good is coming out of evil. People have said "Enough is enough." You screwed up, Mr. McKinney. You made the world realize that a person's lifestyle is not a reason for discrimination, intolerance, persecution, and violence. This is not the 1920s, 30s, and 40s of Nazi Germany. My son died because of your ignorance and intolerance. I can't bring him back. But I can do my best to see that this never, ever happens to another person or another family again. As I mentioned earlier, my son has become a symbol—a symbol against hate and people like you; a symbol for encouraging respect for individuality; for appreciating that someone is different; for tolerance. I miss my son, but I'm proud to be able to say that he is my son….
Your honor, members of the jury, Mr. Rerucha, thank you.
What happened next …
Candlelight memorials were held across the nation for Matthew Shepard and in protest of prejudice and discrimination against gays. By November 1999 both Henderson and McKinney had received two consecutive life imprisonment sentences. President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) released a statement on November 3 following McKinney's sentencing that is available on the website http://www.fedglobe.org/actions/whpress110399.htm (accessed on December 12, 2006).
This verdict is a dramatic statement that we are determined to have a tolerant, law-abiding nation that celebrates our differences, rather than despising them. Our nation must unite in outrage against hate-based violence. We cannot surrender to those on the fringe of our society who lash out at those who are different. Their crimes impose a particular cost on society by tearing at the social fabric. It is my continued hope that together, as a nation, we will work to repair that fabric.
Matthew's parents founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation with a website www.matthewshepard.org. The Foundation's key goal is through education to replace hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance. Foundation members urge programs supporting diversity and acceptance of differing groups within society. Judy Shepard, Matt's mother, traveled throughout the United States to speak on behalf of the Foundation.
On October 10, 1998, in response to the attack on Matthew, President Clinton urged stronger anti-hate crime legislation. At the time of Matthew's death, forty-one states had hate crime laws, with twenty-one specifically addressing sexual orientation crimes. Clinton called for passage of the Hate Crime Prevention Act. The U.S. Senate passed the act in 1999. An update of the act, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, was still waiting for passage in late 2006. It would strengthen the U.S. Justice Department's ability to prosecute crimes committed due to the victim's sexual orientation, gender, or disability.
Did you know …
- A play, "The Laramie Project" based on the national reaction to Matthew's death in Laramie, was produced by students in schools across the nation. However, even the play was a target of prejudicial misunderstanding and banned at some places for its subject matter and language.
- Gay, lesbian, and bisexual young people grow up feeling loneliness, alienation, a sense that something is very wrong about themselves, and a fear of letting anyone know.
- "Coming out" is the name given to the process of gay and lesbian people telling family and friends that they are gay. First gays and lesbians must learn what their sexual orientation is and then accept it. Because of gay, lesbian, and bisexual literature, and support organizations and websites, the process was becoming easier by the early twenty-first century. Still, suicide remained the leading cause of death among gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth.
Consider the following …
- In what ways can safe environments be created in schools for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students? Check out suggestions of the Gay-Straight Alliance Networks at http://www.gsanetwork.org.
- Find out if a P-Flag (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) group is in your community. Invite a speaker to come to your class.
- Visit the Matthew Shepard Foundation website at http://www.matthewshepard.org. List various ways to replace prejudice and hate with understanding.
- In Los Angeles gay and lesbian leaders declared Shepard a martyr to anti-gay hatred. What did they mean by martyr and what did they hope to accomplish with this declaration?
For More Information
Mastoon, Adam. The Shared Heart: Portraits and Stories Celebrating Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young People. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997.
Reed, Rita. Growing Up Gay: The Sorrows and Joys of Gay and Lesbian Adolescence. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
Gay, Lesbian and Straight Teachers Network (GLSTN). http://qrd.org/qrd/www/orgs/glstn/ (accessed on December 12, 2006).
Gay-Straight Alliance Network. http://www.gsanetwork.org (accessed on December 12, 2006).
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (LCCREF). http://www.civilrights.org (accessed on December 12, 2006).
PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). http://www.PFLAG.org (accessed on December 12, 2006).
Shepard, Dennis. "Dennis Shepard's Statements to the Court, November 4, 1999." Matthew Shepard Foundation. http://www.matthewsplace.com/dsstatementtocourt.htm (accessed on December 12, 2006).
Synonymous: Closely identified.
Gay bashing: Speaking hatefully about homosexual people.
Out of proportion: Into a bigger problem than it really was.
Tolerate: Put up with.
Martyr: Person who makes a major personal sacrifice
Nazi Germany: The German government that killed and tortured millions of European Jews and others, including homosexuals.
Symbol: One thing that stands for something else.