Matthew Shepard was taken from a Laramie bar, beaten and left for dead on Oct. 6, 1998. Six days later on Oct. 12 — 25 years ago today — the gay University of Wyoming student died from the injuries he suffered during the brutal attack. His death shocked Laramie and reverberated around the world, immediately catalyzing action, which continues to this day.
Nichol Bondurant, who’s taught literature and composition at Laramie High School for two decades, was just starting her education and women’s studies degrees at the University of Wyoming when Shepard was murdered. Grief moved her to take part in the angel counter-action against preacher Fred Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church who traveled to protest outside the courthouse during the murder trial. Dressed as angels with tall, wide wings draped in sheets, Bondurant and other activists blocked the congregation’s hateful and homophobic messages from reaching Shepard’s family and friends.
She’s continued to stand up against hate throughout her career as an educator, including as the sponsor of Laramie High School’s LGBTQ+-affirming student organization.
To mark the 25th anniversary, WyoFile asked Bondurant to sit down with a Laramie High School student whose activism is also inspired by Shepard. Kai Edwards, who is 15 years old and a sophomore at Laramie High School, advocates for queer and trans youth and youth of color, as well as for the vitality of rural communities.
Edwards and Bondurant asked each other about Shepard’s impact, why remembering his story matters and how they plan to honor his legacy on the 25th anniversary of his murder.
WyoFile edited their conversation for brevity and clarity.
Kai Edwards: Why is remembering and memorializing Matthew Shepard 25 years after his murder important to you? What’s at stake if we forget his story?
Nichol Bondurant: Oh, goodness, so much would be at stake. I think it’s important to memorialize what happened to Matthew Shepard because it was a pivotal moment in our community. But it was also — internationally and nationally — a pivotal moment for so many people. And it really was the beginning of a lot of change.
It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and enough was enough. We weren’t going to stand by such violence and discrimination and hatred anymore, and so many positive things came from that.
There’s been so much work — the marriage equality through the Supreme Court and the fact that so many students can feel comfortable to be 100% themselves at Laramie High — yet, we’re also lobbying against proposed bills, even in Wyoming, that have already passed in Tennessee and Florida, like the “Don’t say gay” bill.
It’s often the same people saying, ‘Oh, you can’t teach about these atrocities that happened in American history. Oh, you can’t teach these books with strong, Black or Brown characters in the lead roles.’ It’s the same people saying, ‘Let’s silence this minoritized community. Let’s take away their voices.’ And by taking away those voices, that’s why we saw the violence that happened to Matthew.
If you know his whole life story, you see that people kept trying to silence him and hurt him, at other times before this murder. And he just stood up and stayed an activist, which is so inspirational. It’s important that people hear those truths so that we know the whole story and we don’t let our society go backward to something full of hate again.
Why is it important to you? Why do you think we need to still be talking about it?
KE: It’s really important to me that we know where we’ve been so that we can know where we’re going in the future. Just after bringing this up with my family, I learned that even my brother didn’t know what happened to Matthew Shepard. He didn’t even recognize the name. And knowing that people in this community don’t recognize his name — despite [Shepard’s death] being such a building block of our queer community — it upsets me.
I believe that you cannot be truly gone until you are forgotten, and so forgetting Matthew Shepard in our already small community would be to truly let him go.
NB: Beautiful. How old is your brother?
KE: My brother is 13 years old.
NB: I jumped with both feet into being an angel — and some of the other activism that I did — from the perspective of having become a mom. And you know, that little tiny small human is now a 29-year-old journalist and so much more, but when I was looking at her as this 3-year-old and then hearing about these atrocities, I felt the same way you did about your brother. I was like, ‘I can’t let the world stay this ugly. I have to do something.’
I think it’s neat that we both looked at people younger than us, and mind you I was in my 20s and it was a 3-year-old, but still the same kind of concept. I love that we have that connection.
When did you first learn about Matthew Shepard personally? And when you first learned about him — as someone who identifies as part of the queer community and a member of the Laramie community — how did this impact you?
KE: I first learned about Matthew Shepard when I was 12 years old in the seventh grade after joining the Lab School’s gay-straight alliance. And when I heard about it, I immediately started thinking about queer people in my life that I loved and how broken I would be if they were to face that situation and die the way that he did. I lamented over it for weeks and weeks. I was already going through a rough patch with my view of the world and it completely broke me.
NB: I see you as a positive role model at our school. You are always proactive — you are the very definition of an advocate and activist. You’re such a positive human. What has moved you to go from that place where you felt at a loss to being someone who’s an advocate and an activist? And what are some of the things you’ve done in this role?
KE: I think the most important influence in my life that moved me to where I am today was how much I love my little brother. Back when I first learned about Matthew Shepard and a little bit before that, I was going through a piece of life where I felt angry and afraid to the point that I would just isolate myself from everything around me out of fear. And I don’t want my brother or anyone that I love to step into a world that they feel cannot be healed the way that I did. And it’s important to me that they can live in a place that they are proud to be and not be afraid of the history or afraid of the culture.
I want the people I love to be proud of where they come from. Laramie, Wyoming is a beautiful place, and even in such rural areas, we need to recognize that queer history exists. Not all of it is perfect, not all of it is happy, but beautiful things can come from it. And I think the day that people realize that then we can truly begin to heal our community.
What events have shaped you and your stance as an activist and advocate?
NB: Well, of course, a big one was Matthew Shepard’s murder.
I didn’t really know him very well, but he was still someone I met, and then to have him brutally murdered — that blew my mind.
That made me think, ‘I have to do something for my daughter.’
When we heard about the Fred Phelps situation — and how they were going to bring children with them to spread hate at the trials, just like they did at his funeral — Romaine Patterson had this idea to do the angel wings.
We were all sitting in a circle at someone’s house, and they said, ‘Who would be willing to do this?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, me.’ It just seemed like the right thing to do. And they were like, ‘Well, why have you decided to do this?’ And I was like, ‘I can’t let there be a voice of hate to small children without being a voice of love to small children.’
Then my senior capstone project for my degree became finding curricula to teach LGBTQ+ texts in schools, and now I teach LGBTQ+ texts in schools, which is cool. So I guess the brutality of what happened to Matthew and the hate that came afterward made me realize that I can’t be a quiet activist.
And I never stopped, but my role has evolved. I don’t put myself in the forefront anymore. I feel like my role as an activist now is that I’m the support for young activists. I get to be the person to hear their ideas and try to help pave the way for them to happen, instead of being the person who puts the wings on. Though, I would do it again, in a heartbeat. Now I might be like, ‘Who among all of you would like me to help you wear wings?’ It’s kind of a neat role to be in now to have this generational ability to look back and still be involved with youth and get to look forward.
KE: I think it’s so beautiful how everyone came together after that. It’s bittersweet, really. What was your immediate reaction to Matthew Shepard’s murder? And how did it affect you?
NB: I think it was just that shock. I just was this college student and mom who was trying to figure things out. I think back to the conversations I had and how we all felt like we all had to do something, we all had to move forward. It was something that you could wallow in the pain of, or you could do something about it. And I think we all realized that we had to move forward, we couldn’t just live in that pain. That was just powerful.
And it affected my life because I wanted to raise my child differently after that. I wanted to be a different kind of teacher.
This happened before you were born. Where do you want to see our world go next?
KE: To move forward, we first have to find a way to heal our community and put us in a place where we are ready to move forward. There are already so many incredible activists fighting against these things, but to truly reverse the damage that has already been done to our community, we have to bond together even further.
NB: I think that you said that so eloquently. We do need to move forward. And to do that, we might have to stop and look at what pain is still being put upon people. I mean, the violence against especially our trans folks, it continues to be an issue. We need to say enough is enough.
What does it hurt to treat everyone with kindness even if your belief system, your sexual orientation, gender identity, religion or political party is different than the other person’s? Why meet them with cruelty instead of trying to find those common bonds? I think what you were speaking about building community really ties into that. You know, it’s about recognizing that behind everyone’s eyes, they’ve gone through something beautiful and something painful, and trying to meet them where they are and grow.
WyoFile: How do you plan to memorialize Matt?
NB: Every year I’ve gone to the Shepard Symposium for Social Justice. That is a really good space — they’ve got things going all week — and I think people need that place to go and that sense of belonging.
But what if you live out of town? What if you’re too busy to go to those events? Do something kind for someone and do it in honor of Matthew. Be outspoken about it.
KE: I will be speaking at the Shepard Symposium, [and] I am going to try to educate people around me. I think that’s the most important thing to do because a lot of hate comes from ignorance. And to dispel ignorance is to dispel hate.