I hope that almost anyone reading this site knows at least something about Matthew Shepard — whose face became a figurehead in the gay rights movement after his grisly murder in 1998.
Matthew was born on December 1, 1976 in Casper, Wyoming to parents Judy and Dennis Shepard. He was their eldest son — their other son Logan was born in 1981. He had a close relationship with his brother. He attended local schools through his junior year of high school, developing an interest in politics, and was generally friendly to his classmates even though he was frequently teased for being thin and not athletic.
In 1994, Dennis Shepard was hired by Saudi Aramco to be an oil rig inspector, and Shepard’s parents moved to Dahran, Saudi Arabia for the job. Matthew attended his senior year of high school at The American School in Switzerland (TASIS). While there, he started studying German and Italian and became interested in music, fashion, and theater. During February of his year there, he and three classmates took a vacation to Morocco — where Matthew was beaten, robbed, and raped by a group of locals who were never caught. The attack was traumatic for Matthew — afterwards he had bouts of depression, anxiety and paranoia and experienced flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts which lasted through the remainder of his life, despite his best efforts in therapy. When therapy seemed to fail him, he turned to drug use. He also began routinely being tested for HIV after this.
Matthew graduated from TASIS in 1995. Shortly after his graduation, Matthew came out to his mother. She was very accepting of him and apparently coming out was entirely without drama, so we’re just going to breeze by it now. After high school, Matthew began to study theater at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina until he briefly moved to Raleigh. He enrolled at Casper College in his hometown. At Casper College, he met Romaine Patterson, who became his close friend. Together, they moved to Denver where Matthew took on a series of short-lived part time jobs.
At 21 years old, Matthew enrolled at his parents’ alma mater, Wyoming University in Laramie. He felt that a small town environment would make him feel safer than he had in Denver. He began studying political science, international relations, and foreign languages. He quickly became an active member of the campus’ LGBTQ+ student organization and earned a reputation for passionately pursuing equality. Some time after beginning school at Wyoming University, Matthew tested positive for HIV — a fact he confided in a handful of friends, but kept from his parents.
And that brings us to October 6, 1998. Matthew was at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. According to later testimonies, Matthew encountered two men — Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson — in the bar that night. They pretended to be gay to lure him out to McKinney’s truck. Matthew was expecting a ride home, but put his hand on McKinney’s knee, which set off a deep rage in McKinney. The two men robbed Matthew, hit him with a gun, beat him and tortured him until he was covered in his own blood and was virtually unrecognizable. They tied him to a fence in the middle of nowhere and left him there in temperatures that were close to freezing. According to later testimonies, both men were completely sober and, after finding out his address, planned on robbing Matthew’s home as well. First, however, they returned to the town and subsequently got into a fight with two other men. When police broke up the fight, McKinney was arrested and his truck was searched. They found shoes, a bloody gun, and a credit card also smeared with blood. The shoes and credit card belonged to Matthew.
Eighteen hours later, a man named Aaron Kreifels went past the fence on his bicycle. He initially mistook Matthew for a scarecrow, but upon realizing that it was a badly beaten, comatose person he immediately called the police. It’s reported that there was so much on Matthew’s face that the only places you could see his skin were tracks from his tears running down his face. The first officer to respond was Reggie Fluty. She arrived with a supply of faulty medical gloves, which she eventually ran out of while trying to clear blood out of Matthew’s mouth so he could breathe. When Matthew’s HIV status became clear to authorities, Fluty was put on a regiment of AZT for a month but she did not contract the virus.
Matthew was brought to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, and then moved to a more advanced facility at Pudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. Even there, the doctors decided his injuries were too severe for operations. Matthew remained in a coma until October 12, when he was taken off of life support and pronounced dead.
During the six days, news of the attack had gained international attention. Candlelight vigils were held around the world — as well as anti-gay demonstrations. When Matthew’s funeral was held, the Westboro Baptist Church protested — gaining themselves national attention. (Which, of course, is all those parasites want or care about so I’m saying the bare minimum about them.) In response, Romaine Patterson organized a counter-protest where a group of people dressed as angels to block out the protest — this would be the foundation of the organization Angel Action.
Meanwhile, authorities arrested McKinney and Henderson. They were charged with attempted murder (later upgraded to first degree murder), kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. Their girlfriends, who had provided alibis and tried to help dispose of evidence, were charged with being accessories after the fact. McKinney’s girlfriend Kristen Price told detectives that the violence had been set off by how McKinney “[felt] about the gays” (a testimony she recanted in 2004) and the defense team attempted to argue that McKinney had gone temporarily insane when Matthew had come onto him. This is one of the most famous examples of the “gay panic” defense, but the judge rejected that argument.
Henderson took a plea deal, pleading guilty and agreeing to two consecutive lifetime sentences instead of the death penalty. In exchange, he testified against McKinney. McKinney was found guilty by a jury of felony murder, but not of premeditated murder. While they deliberating on whether or not he should receive the death penalty, Shepard’s parents arranged a deal — McKinney would serve two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole.
In the years that followed, this attack would remain in the minds of the American population. The events inspired a number of television, film, and theatrical works — the most notable (in my opinion) being The Laramie Project and Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine (go watch those if you haven’t seen them yet!) More importantly, Matthew’s death was a major part of the impetus for passing more comprehensive anti-hate crime legislation in the United States. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act (sometimes called the Matthew Shepard Act) became law on October 28, 2009.
Dennis and Judy Shepard have been staunch advocates for LGBTQ+ rights since the attack, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which they founded, has become a massive force for education and advocacy regarding LGBTQ+ issues. This year — on the 20th anniversary of the attack — it was announced that Matthew’s remains will be interred in the Washington National Cathedral on October 26, 2018.
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