With 21,788 reported hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation in the United States from 1995-2012 alone, the case of Matthew Shepard’s murder was not unpredictable. During a time when LGBTQ violence was widespread, Matt could have been written off as a mere statistic, yet —against all the odds— his name has lived on far past his death. Targeted for being gay, Matt was mercilessly beaten, endlessly tortured, and left to die alone in the prairies of Wyoming. The world may have lost Matthew Shepard in 1998, but his legacy of generations of LGBTQ advocates continues to affect queer and non-binary youth worldwide. Matt’s story exemplifies the power of one: One person. One name. One tragedy. One legacy.
Matt experienced hate from a young age. During his teen years, his father got a job in Saudi Arabia, and the family moved across the world. From here, Matt attended a boarding school called TASIS in Switzerland. Away from his American peers and in a new environment, Matt had a chance to reinvent himself and explore the man he wanted to become. The new Matt was extremely popular amongst his peers, winning “friendliest in the class.” Since he was a child, Matt dreamed of being an actor, repeatedly asking his mother, “Do you think I’ll be famous someday?” TASIS finally provided him with the resources and courage to join plays and take risks. Unfortunately, one of these risks almost cost him his life, and certainly cost him his innocence.
Discrimination and violence
In 1995 Matt embarked on a trip to Morocco with his good friend Kate Chill. At 2 o’clock in the morning Chill received a knock at her door, as the words “It’s Matt, let me in” rang through the dead of night. Chill opened the door to reveal Matt, with no shirt and no shoes, screaming in pain and horror. Matt’s naivety and urge for adventure made him the perfect subject for an attack. “He’s an incredible person but no doubt an easy target” recounts Walt Boulden, Matt’s guidance counselor. Two men pulled Matt into an alley and brutally raped, robbed and beat him, leaving him with scars that would last much longer than the wounds.
Matt never fully recovered from the attack. His mother noticed his changes immediately: he avoided big crowds, changed his posture, and stopped looking people in the eyes. From that moment on, Matt took his acting off of the stage and into his real life. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts followed Matt to college in Denver, where he eventually transferred back home to a lonely, conservative, and cold Wyoming town. At first, Matt began to feel like his old self again. His close friends at the University of Wyoming remember him as a happy, bright young man with incredible potential.
Sadly, this feeling did not last long. After a group LGBTQ meeting, Matt went to Fireside, a bar he frequented, to grab a quick drink. Two men – Russel Henderson and Aaron Mckinney – pegged Matt for a weak yet wealthy gay boy. They hatched a plan to pretend to be gay and lore him out of the bar. Once the men had Matt in the back of their car, Aaron began to beat him ruthlessly. They dragged him out of the truck into a private prairie and beat him some more with the butt of a .357 magnum gun 19-21 times to the head and face— crushing his brain stem and tearing away his ear. The police officers found Matt 18 hours later tied to a fence, initially mistaking the boy for a 12 year old child.
Matt’s parents, Judy and Dennis, awoke at 5:00 am in Saudi Arabia when the hospital called to explain what happened to their 21-year-old son. Under the impression that it was merely a car crash, they were caught by surprise when they arrived with the most difficult decision of all: to take him off life support or let him suffer a bit longer. Dennis drove to Wyoming to get Matt’s personal belongings, including his beloved stuffed bunny, Oscar, which he could not find in the midst of the mayhem. In an interview, Dennis revealed that he believes that God was telling him to keep Oscar for himself, to remind him of the good days with his son. Ultimately, Walt told Matt to let go and stop fighting. He died at 12:53 that night, October 12th, 1998.
Protestors and media flooded Matt’s funeral. His story had become national and international news since the police report of his attack. Sadly, the Shepherds continued to experience backlash. Hundreds of letters came in the mail expressing people’s grief and sorrow for the family, yet letters of hate sprinkled their way in as well. Letters reading “Yo asshole… your weeping little swine” and “Home of dead faggot” appeared in the grieving family’s mailbox. At the trial, Russel and Aaron were sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, barely escaping the death penalty. Remarkably, Judy and Dennis argued on behalf of Matt’s murderers, stating: “Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life… every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday or the Fourth of July, remember that Matt isn’t… May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”
Ultimately, the change did come. Not immediately, not all at once, but slowly and imperfectly, Matt’s story changed the world. Judy and Dennis Shepard went on to achieve the type of social and political change that Matt was destined to spend his life advocating for. Creating the Matt Shepard Foundation that same year, Judy and Dennis proved to be an inspiration to gay youths everywhere. Keeping the spirit of Matt alive, Judy stated, “When I think about the last seven years, I feel a great sadness for the loss of Matt. But as I look to the future, I am filled with hope. Matthew’s legacy is not about hate. Matthew’s legacy is about understanding, compassion, acceptance, and love.”
Judy’s efforts were not in vain, as the 110th Congress introduced The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act. On October 28th, 2009, after multiple failed attempts, President Barack Obama eagerly signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act into law. The tragic death of Matthew Shepard, as well as the valiant efforts of his close family and friends, will never be forgotten. His story shows that not everything is as it seems. A little stuffed animal can represent a lifetime of memories; a skinny, braces-wearing boy can represent generations of LGBTQ advocates. One cannot help but think: Maybe this is how it was meant to be. Maybe Matt’s passion was bigger than just himself. He always wanted to change the world, and he sure as hell did.
- “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” (2014: Directed by Michele Jose)
- “The Laramie Project” (2002: Directed by Moisés Kaufman)
- “The Matthew Shepard Story” (2002: Directed by Roger Spottiswoode)
- “Anatomy of a Hate Crime” (2001: Directed by Tim Hunter)