Matthew Shepard in 1998

©1998 Gina van Hoof/SOFAM (Matthew Shepard); Casper Star Tribune (newspaper)

Remembering Matthew Shepard

The brutal killing of a Wyoming college student 20 years ago raised awareness about violence against the LGBTQ community and led to an expansion of hate-crime laws

Matthew Shepard wanted to make a difference in the world. When he was just 7 years old, he was already getting involved in politics, volunteering for an environmental group that was working to get his home city of Casper, Wyoming, to start a recycling program. In the sixth grade, he played the role of Abraham Lincoln at his school’s history day and was one of the youngest members of Casper’s community theater group. And as a student at Natrona County High School in Casper, he was elected a peer counselor and dreamed of working for the U.S. State Department. 

“He thought it would be great to serve his country,” says Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s dad, “and to try to bring the same privileges and rights that he thought he had as an American to other countries.”

But Shepard never got to realize his dreams.  

Just after midnight on October 7, 1998, when Shepard was a 21-year-old senior at the University of Wyoming, two men kidnapped him and drove him to a field outside Laramie, Wyoming. They brutally beat him, tied him to a fence, and left him to die in the freezing cold—all because he was gay.

“It was horrifying,” says Dennis Shepard, “the brutality of it and the lack of morality.”

But in his death, Matthew Shepard became a symbol for the fight against bigotry and hate. The horrific murder made headlines across the nation and galvanized a movement that put a spotlight on violence against the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) community and led to more comprehensive hate-crime legislation.

Today, just a few months removed from the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death, important strides have been made toward combating hate and violence against LGBTQ people. Still, many believe the country has not come far enough.  

“Matt’s life and his death made such a huge impact . . . especially as it relates to the LGBTQ community,” says Jay Brown of the Human Rights Campaign (H.R.C.), which advocates for LGBTQ rights. “But we know this work is not over by any means.”

Matthew Shepard wanted to make a difference in the world. When he was just 7 years old, he was already getting involved in politics. He got his start volunteering for an environmental group that was working to get his home city of Casper, Wyoming, to start a recycling program. In the sixth grade, he played the role of Abraham Lincoln at his school’s history day. He was also one of the youngest members of Casper’s community theater group. And as a student at Natrona County High School in Casper, he was elected a peer counselor. It was his dream to work for the U.S. State Department.

“He thought it would be great to serve his country,” says Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s dad, “and to try to bring the same privileges and rights that he thought he had as an American to other countries.”

But Shepard never got to realize his dreams.

Things changed for the 21-year-old senior at the University of Wyoming on the night of October 7, 1998. Just after midnight, two men kidnapped him and drove him to a field outside Laramie, Wyoming. They brutally beat him, tied him to a fence, and left him to die in the freezing cold. They did all of this because he was gay.

“It was horrifying,” says Dennis Shepard, “the brutality of it and the lack of morality.” 

But in his death, Matthew Shepard became a symbol for the fight against bigotry and hate. The horrific murder made headlines across the nation. It sparked a movement that put a spotlight on violence against the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) community. And it led to more comprehensive hate-crime legislation.

Today, just a few months removed from the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death, important strides have been made toward combating hate and violence against LGBTQ people. Still, many believe the country has not come far enough.

“Matt’s life and his death made such a huge impact . . . especially as it relates to the LGBTQ community,” says Jay Brown of the Human Rights Campaign (H.R.C.), which advocates for LGBTQ rights. “But we know this work is not over by any means.”

Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

A candlelight vigil on October 12, 1998, the day that Shepard died

Inspiring a Movement

Before Shepard’s death, many people didn’t realize how much violence against LGBTQ people took place.  

“I think that’s why a lot of people were so stunned; they thought things were starting to change,” says Brown. “And then they realized that being visibly gay could still be a matter of life and death.”

The sheer brutality of the murder was a wake-up call. Reporters camped outside the hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Shepard lay in a coma for five days with tubes, stitches, and bandages covering nearly every inch of his face. As the story of how this college student ended up on life support began appearing on national news shows night after night, the hatred that had spawned the attack could no longer be ignored.

When Shepard died on October 12, President Bill Clinton gave a speech condemning his attackers. 

“Crimes of hate and crimes of violence cannot be tolerated in our country,” he said. “In our shock and grief, one thing must remain clear: Hate and prejudice are not American values.”

Before Shepard’s death, many people didn’t realize how much violence against LGBTQ people took place.

“I think that’s why a lot of people were so stunned; they thought things were starting to change,” says Brown. “And then they realized that being visibly gay could still be a matter of life and death.”

The sheer brutality of the murder was a wake-up call. Reporters camped outside the hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Shepard lay in a coma for five days. He had tubes, stitches, and bandages covering nearly every inch of his face. As the story of how this college student ended up on life support began appearing on national news shows night after night, the hatred that had spawned the attack could no longer be ignored. 

Shepard died on October 12. That same day, President Bill Clinton gave a speech condemning his attackers.

“Crimes of hate and crimes of violence cannot be tolerated in our country,” he said. “In our shock and grief, one thing must remain clear: Hate and prejudice are not American values.”

‘Hate and prejudice are not American values.’

Two days later, thousands of people gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to mourn Shepard’s death and demand change. Politicians and celebrities, such as comedian Ellen DeGeneres (who had come out as lesbian a few months before), spoke from the Capitol steps. They urged Congress to create more federal protections for LGBTQ people.

Thousands more marched through the streets of New York City, and people all across the country held vigils. Many believed that they or someone they knew could easily be in Matt’s place—that they could be the next person to fall victim to hate. 

“Everybody saw something, regardless of their race, or religion, or skin color, in Matthew that they could see either in themselves or somebody in their family,” Dennis Shepard says. “He was the kid next door.”

But while mourners flocked to the vigils, so did anti-LGBTQ protesters. They held signs saying Shepard would “rot in hell” and screamed at Shepard’s parents—and hundreds of others—as they entered a church in Wyoming for a memorial service on October 16.

Two days later, thousands of people gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to mourn Shepard’s death and demand change. Politicians and celebrities spoke from the Capitol steps. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who had come out as lesbian a few months before, was among them. Together, they urged Congress to create more federal protections for LGBTQ people.

Thousands more marched through the streets of New York City. People all across the country held vigils. Many believed that they or someone they knew could easily be in Matt’s place. In other words, people feared that they or others could be the next person to fall victim to hate.

“Everybody saw something, regardless of their race, or religion, or skin color, in Matthew that they could see either in themselves or somebody in their family,” Dennis Shepard says. “He was the kid next door.”

But while mourners flocked to the vigils, so did anti-LGBTQ protesters. They held signs saying Shepard would “rot in hell.” Those protesting screamed at Shepard’s parents and hundreds of others as they entered a church in Wyoming for a memorial service on October 16.

Ed Andrieski/AP Photo

Shepard was tied to this fence outside Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998.

A Crime of Hate

Police had arrested two 21-year-olds, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and charged them with kidnapping and murdering Shepard. As the trial unfolded before a national audience over the next few months, more and more of the gruesome details of the killing came into focus.

According to police reports, McKinney and Henderson approached Shepard at a bar in Laramie on October 6. Later that night, they lured him into their truck by pretending that they were also gay. They then drove Shepard out to a field, where they repeatedly beat him on the head with a pistol, tied him to a wooden fence, and left him unconscious and bleeding. Shepard was so battered that a bicyclist who found him 18 hours later initially mistook him for a scarecrow.

McKinney and Henderson were convicted of murder and each was sentenced to two life terms in prison. Today, Henderson feels remorse for what he did.  

“I think about Matthew every single day of my life,” he recently told the Associated Press. “I think about him and every single one of those days that I’ve had that he hasn’t had, his family hasn’t had, his friends haven’t had. I’m so, so ashamed I was ever part of this.”

After Shepard’s death, his parents and many activists were determined not to let his story end there. For 10 years, they continued to call on Congress to create stricter legislation that would protect LGBTQ people against hate crimes. At the time, the federal hate-crime law covered only race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

“We felt we owed it to Matt to try to make life better for his friends and peers,” says Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mom.

Police had arrested two 21-year-olds, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. They charged them with kidnapping and murdering Shepard. The trial unfolded before a national audience over the next few months. As it went on, more and more of the gruesome details of the killing came into focus.

According to police reports, McKinney and Henderson approached Shepard at a bar in Laramie on October 6. 

Later that night, they lured him into their truck by pretending that they were also gay. They then drove Shepard out to a field. There, they repeatedly beat him on the head with a pistol and tied him to a wooden fence. They left him unconscious and bleeding. Shepard was so battered that a bicyclist who found him 18 hours later initially mistook him for a scarecrow.

McKinney and Henderson were convicted of murder. Each of them was sentenced to two life terms in prison. Today, Henderson feels remorse for what he did. 

“I think about Matthew every single day of my life,” he recently told the Associated Press. “I think about him and every single one of those days that I’ve had that he hasn’t had, his family hasn’t had, his friends haven’t had. I’m so, so ashamed I was ever part of this.”

After Shepard’s death, his parents and many activists were determined not to let his story end there. For 10 years, they continued to call on Congress to create stricter legislation that would protect LGBTQ people against hate crimes. At the time, the federal hate-crime law covered only race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

“We felt we owed it to Matt to try to make life better for his friends and peers,” says Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mom.

Washington Pool/SIPA/Newscom

Dennis and Judy Shepard at the White House with President Barack Obama for the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009

Combating Violence

Finally, after several bills failed to win enough support in Congress, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act was approved and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. Named for Shepard and Byrd—an African-American man murdered by three white supremacists in Texas the same year as Shepard—the act expanded the federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by an offender’s bias against a sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It gave the Department of Justice the power to work with local law enforcement to investigate and prosecute violent crimes like the one committed against Shepard.

“It’s an expansion of basic civil rights,” says Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley, who was the lead investigator in Shepard’s murder. “It only made good sense that all people who are victimized by criminal acts because of who they are should have equal protection.”

Investigating Shepard’s murder also had a profound personal impact on O’Malley. “Prior to my involvement in this particular case, I was pretty homophobic,” he says. But in working on the case and interacting with the LGBTQ community, he says he realized that “the only difference between me and everyone I was dealing with was sexual orientation and that’s where it ended.” After the trial, O’Malley joined Judy and Dennis Shepard and the Human Rights Campaign on trips to Washington to lobby Congress to expand the hate-crime law. 

Finally, after several bills failed to win enough support in Congress, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act was approved. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. The act was named for Shepard and Byrd, an African-American man murdered by three white supremacists in Texas the same year as Shepard. The new law expanded the federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by an offender’s bias against a sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It gave the Department of Justice the power to work with local law enforcement to investigate and prosecute violent crimes like the one committed against Shepard.

“It’s an expansion of basic civil rights,” says Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley, who was the lead investigator in Shepard’s murder. “It only made good sense that all people who are victimized by criminal acts because of who they are should have equal protection.”

Investigating Shepard’s murder also had a profound personal impact on O’Malley. “Prior to my involvement in this particular case, I was pretty homophobic,” he says. But in working on the case and interacting with the LGBTQ community, he says he realized that “the only difference between me and everyone I was dealing with was sexual orientation and that’s where it ended.” After the trial, O’Malley joined Judy and Dennis Shepard and the Human Rights Campaign on trips to Washington to lobby Congress to expand the hate-crime law. 

The Supreme Court has ruled that gay marriage is a constitutional right.

In the years since Shepard’s death, America as a whole has grown more accepting of LGBTQ people. In 2016, 63 percent of Americans said that homosexuality should be accepted by society—up from 51 percent in 2006, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

This shift is reflected in American culture and politics. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is a constitutional right. Many popular TV shows, such as Modern Family and Riverdale, and movies, like Love, Simon, feature same-sex couples. And, in the midterms this past November, voters in Colorado elected the nation’s first openly gay governor.

However, two decades after Shepard’s death, violence against the LGBTQ community hasn’t gone away. According to a recent report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), more than 1,200 hate crimes targeted people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in 2017 (see chart, below).

Experts say the true number of hate crimes is probably higher, because many states don’t collect or disclose this data. Shepard’s home state of Wyoming is one of five states that don’t have a hate-crime law. Twenty-seven states have hate-crime laws that don’t include protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity. Because so many states lack these protections, there’s no way of accurately recording the number of hate crimes against LGBTQ people. That’s something many people would like to see changed.

In the years since Shepard’s death, America as a whole has grown more accepting of LGBTQ people. In 2016, 63 percent of Americans said that homosexuality should be accepted by society. That’s up from 51 percent in 2006, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

This shift is reflected in American culture and politics. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is a constitutional right. Many popular TV shows, such as Modern Family and Riverdale feature same-sex couples. So do hit movies, like Love, Simon. And, in the midterms this past November, voters in Colorado elected the nation’s first openly gay governor. 

However, two decades after Shepard’s death, violence against the LGBTQ community hasn’t gone away. According to a recent report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), more than 1,200 hate crimes targeted people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in 2017.

Experts say the true number of hate crimes is probably higher, because many states don’t collect or disclose this data. Shepard’s home state of Wyoming is one of five states that don’t have a hate-crime law. Twenty-seven states have hate-crime laws that don’t include protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity. Because so many states lack these protections, there’s no way of accurately recording the number of hate crimes against LGBTQ people. That’s something many people would like to see changed. 

More Work to Do

Today many young people feel more comfortable coming out than in the past. Various surveys show that between 8 and 20 percent of young people identify as LGBTQ—a greater percentage than any generation before.

However, many LGBTQ youth still face discrimination on a daily basis. Nearly three-quarters of LGBTQ students, ages 13 to 17, say they don’t always feel safe in the classroom, according to a 2018 report by the H.R.C. And 73 percent say they’ve experienced verbal threats because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  

Since her son’s death, Judy Shepard has dedicated her life to speaking out against this type of bigotry and hate. She started the Matthew Shepard Foundation on December 1, 1998—what would have been his 22nd birthday—to provide support for LGBTQ youth.

Despite the prevalence of hate crimes, Judy Shepard continues to believe that a better future for young LGBTQ people is possible.

“I want them to know there’s hope,” she says. “I want them to know the world is going to be a better place in the future, and to not ever give up.”

Today many young people feel more comfortable coming out than in the past. Various surveys show that between 8 and 20 percent of young people identify as LGBTQ. That’s a greater percentage than any generation before.

But many LGBTQ youth still face discrimination on a daily basis. Nearly three-quarters of LGBTQ students, ages 13 to 17, say they don’t always feel safe in the classroom, according to a 2018 report by the H.R.C. And 73 percent say they’ve experienced verbal threats because of their sexual orientation or gender identity (see chart, above).

Since her son’s death, Judy Shepard has dedicated her life to speaking out against this type of bigotry and hate. She started the Matthew Shepard Foundation on December 1, 1998 to provide support for LGBTQ youth. That date would have been her son’s 22nd birthday.

Despite the prevalence of hate crimes, Judy Shepard continues to believe that a better future for young LGBTQ people is possible.

“I want them to know there’s hope,” she says. “I want them to know the world is going to be a better place in the future, and to not ever give up.” 

Matthew Shepard Was My Friend

Matthew Shepard’s high school classmate reflects on the importance of telling her friend’s story.

By Michele Josue

Courtesy Michele Josue

Shepard and Josue in 1995