Matthew Shepard was born in Wyoming on December 1, 1976, to Judy and Dennis Shepard. In 1998, two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, abducted Shepard and drove him to a remote area where he was tied to a split-rail fence, beaten severely, and left to die in the cold of the night. Shepard died just a few days later on October 12, 1998 at the age of 21. His brutal and gruesome death has become one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history and eventually led to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009).
Born on December 1, 1976 in the oil boomtown Casper, Wyoming to Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew Wayne Shepard, the elder of two sons, was a sensitive, soft-spoken, and kind young boy. He went to public school in Casper until his junior year of high school when Shepard moved with his family to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia (where his father worked as an oil safety engineer). He completed high school at The American School in Switzerland where he studied German, Italian, and Theatre and enjoyed music and fashion.
During his senior year, Shepard took a vacation with three classmates to Morocco. During this trip, Shepard was raped, beaten and robbed by a gang of locals. Some assert that Shepard's petit stature (he was only 5’ 2” and 100 pounds) made him particularly vulnerable to victimization. Although the police attempted to ascertain who committed the attack, the perpetrators were never caught. After the assault, Shepard sought therapeutic treatment but had flashbacks, panic attacks, and nightmares. He continued to experience periods of paranoia, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation for the remainder of his short life.
After graduating high school, Matthew Shepard briefly attended a small liberal arts school, Catawba College, in Salisbury, North Carolina, in pursuit of a theatre career. Although Shepard knew he was gay from a young age, he came out to his mother only after high school; she reassured him she had known about his sexual identity for years. He then moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, before moving back home to attend community college at Casper College.
At Casper, a teacher introduced him to Romaine Patterson, an outgoing lesbian who became one of Shepard’s close friends. The two moved to Denver, Colorado and Shepard worked a string of part-time jobs but always knew his passion was helping people. In 1998, he moved to Laramie and enrolled at the University of Wyoming, his parents’ alma mater, because he felt that living in a small town would help him feel safe. As a 21-year-old freshman, Shepard studied political science and international relations and wanted to pursue a Foreign Service career. Known to be polite, thoughtful and a great conversationalist, Shepard quickly became active on campus and joined the university’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) student alliance.
Abduction and Murder of Matthew Shepard
Just a few months after arriving in Laramie, on October 6, 1998, Shepard encountered Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at a local pub, The Fireside Lounge. McKinney and Henderson saw Shepard as an easy target and made plans to rob him. In the early hours of October 7th, the pair lured him away from the bar and drove him to a rural area where they tied him to a split-rail fence, beat him severely with the butt of a .357 Smith & Wesson pistol, and left him to die in the near-freezing temperatures of the early morning hours.
McKinney later stated he assumed Shepard was dead when they left. Shepard was discovered 18 hours later by a bicyclist, Aaron Kreifels, who initially mistook him for a scarecrow. Shepard was rushed, still alive but in a coma, to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. For four days, Shepard lay comatose in a hospital bed just down the hall from McKinney (who was there as the result of a hairline fracture of the skull that he received in a brawl he had instigated just a few hours after attacking Shepard).
In addition to numerous bruises, welts, and lacerations, Shepard’s brain stem was severely damaged and he also was suffering from hypothermia. He was pronounced dead at 12:53 A.M. on October 12, 1998. Shortly after, police found the bloody gun as well as Shepard's shoes and wallet in McKinney’s truck. McKinney and Henderson were arrested and were convicted of felony murder and kidnapping. Both received two consecutive life terms.
Immediate Aftermath: Funeral and Public Responses
Shepard’s memorial service was held at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Casper, Wyoming on October 16, 1998 and was attended by over 700 people (many had to stand outside in the snow), including friends and family from around the world. Also present were notorious protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church, including Fred Phelps himself, who picketed the funeral with homophobic signs. To combat their bigotry, Shepard’s friend Romaine Patterson organized a group, now called Angel Action, to block the protestors by wearing white robes and gigantic wings (resembling angels). Because his brutal attack garnered immense media attention, Shepard’s death was now at the forefront of the fight against anti-gay bigotry and hate.
Hate Crime and The Shepard-Byrd Act
Despite the anti-gay rhetoric spouted by McKinney and Henderson throughout the trials that ultimately led to their life sentences for Shepard’s murder, they were not charged with a hate crime. As a result, Shepard’s high-profile murder case sparked protests, vigils and calls for federal legislation to protect LGBT victims of violence.
On October 28, 2009, over eleven years after Shepard’s murder, The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama with Judy Shepard by his side, officially expanding the federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender or gender identity (which were previously not included in FBI hate crime data) and revising the collection standards for biases motivated by sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity. The Shepard/Byrd Act gives the Department of Justice the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violent crimes against LGBT victims.
A Lasting Inspiration for Activism
Shepard’s life and untimely death have served as an inspiration for activism against hate. Following his death and inspired by Shepard’s passion to foster a more caring and just world, Shepard’s parents created the Matthew Shepard Foundation whose mission is to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance by empowering individuals to embrace human dignity and diversity. Shepard’s death and life have also been chronicled in the play The Laramie Project as well as feature-length films, documentaries, and songs.
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