On the 10th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder, I interviewed the last person to speak to the gay University of Wyoming student before he was brutally attacked by two men, tied to a buck fence outside of Laramie and left for dead.
That was 15 years ago, but even then some people in Wyoming complained that too much attention was being paid to Shepard, and that while his murder was tragic, we all need to move on. On the 25th anniversary of his death, that feeling seems to have grown stronger, as gains in LGBTQ+ civil rights have eroded.
But not for Matt Galloway, the bartender who served Shepard at Laramie’s Fireside Lounge and who later moved to Casper to open his own bar. When we talked in 2008, Galloway fondly recalled how much he always enjoyed discussing politics with his 21-year-old friend.
“I can’t tell you how much it means to me that 10 years later we’re still talking about [Shepard’s death],” Galloway told me. “It should be talked about in schools — especially in schools. Hit them while they’re young … I hope we’ll be talking about it in 10 more years.”
I don’t think there will be a time in Wyoming, and far beyond our borders, when Shepard’s tragic death is forgotten. It still haunts the town of Laramie, even though the majority of today’s UW students weren’t even born when Shepard was murdered 25 years ago.
I was a Casper Star-Tribune reporter when I first heard Shepard’s name at a hastily called press conference, when then-Albany County Sheriff Gary Puls said Shepard’s vicious beating was being investigated as a possible hate crime because he was gay. Five days later, Shepard died at a Fort Collins, Colorado, hospital.
I’ve never covered a more emotional story, nor one that moved me as much. I remember Shepard’s incredible parents, Dennis and Judy, standing outside at an impromptu press conference on a snowy Casper day, the pain they felt etched on their faces.
And I recall a small group wearing yellow ribbons to support Shepard at the start of the University of Wyoming’s homecoming parade, three days after the attack. As they walked and prayed for a miracle, others on the streets joined, a few at a time, swelling to a crowd of more than 100 marchers who were cheered on by the finish.
After covering a notorious protest by homophobic Kansas preacher Fred Phelps outside Shepard’s Casper funeral, I barely made it into the packed church. A reporter friend grabbed the last seat. I only gained entrance when someone thought a colleague and I were ushers, and we slipped inside and stood in the back.
Five months later, I marveled at the ingenuity of Romaine Patterson, one of Shepard’s friends, who wanted to keep the focus on him instead of Phelps. The preacher was protesting outside the Laramie courthouse before the trial of one of Shepard’s killers. So Patterson led a band of “angels,” their homemade wings triumphantly spread to block the sight of Phelps’ antics, rendering the reverend powerless to spread his hate.
But Wyoming’s hate crimes law didn’t include protections for LGBTQ+ people, and to the state’s shame, still doesn’t. Shepard’s killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were both found guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery, and are still serving life sentences.
A documentary, “The Matthew Shepard Story: An American Hate Crime,” premiered Monday on the Investigation Discovery channel. It’s an excellent retrospective, and watching it brought back a flood of memories about covering the biggest Wyoming crime story in decades.
An unforgettable, moving candlelight vigil was held in Laramie the night before Shepard succumbed to his many injuries, with scores of people gathering outside a church to pray for his recovery. It was an outpouring of love and a cry for acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, in a world where Shepard’s sexual orientation made him a target for hate.
I drove back over the hill to my Cheyenne home and turned on the TV news. I was shocked when a segment showed huge crowds at similar vigils and marches for Shepard in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. I began to truly realize the magnitude of Shepard’s death; a small town Wyoming murder was suddenly transformed into a rallying cry for the gay rights movement.
Why did Shepard’s death stand out in a nation where hundreds of LGBTQ+ people are attacked each year? I’ve always thought the overwhelming interest was driven by widely circulated print and broadcast images of Shepard. In some he smiled, but in many others he was noticeably lonely and depressed.
The photos sparked recognition by many Americans that here was a young, slightly built man who could have easily been a relative or friend, whose life was cruelly cut short because he was gay.
If this tragic end could happen to Shepard, it could happen to anyone.
Covering Shepard’s murder was never a typical journalistic experience, but it changed dramatically when a New York City playwriting group chose to interview Wyoming residents, including me, about the impact of the media’s prolonged coverage of the murder. That work became “The Laramie Project,” which has played to audiences throughout the world and kept Shepard’s story alive.
I never expected to be a character in a major play, or have high school students write to me asking how they should portray me in my minor role. And I surprised myself when I joined the cast of the play when it was performed in Casper. Yes, I had to audition, but I won the part.
Even when I had emergency heart surgery a few days into rehearsals, I knew I had to see this experience through to the end. It was, after all, being performed in Shepard’s hometown, where he was a member of the acting troupe Stage III that included many in our cast.
Simply put, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
There have been some obvious gains in the nation’s acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community the past quarter-century, and Shepard’s legacy is an important factor.
Wyoming lawmakers have cowardly refused to act on hate crime bills, even before Shepard’s murder. But in 2009, after intense, years-long lobbying by Judy Shepard, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act. Byrd, another victim of hate, also died in 1998. The Black man was decapitated after white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, tied him to a truck and dragged him along a road.
In 2014, Wyoming legally recognized same-sex marriage when state officials decided not to appeal a federal court decision that found the state’s ban on the practice unconstitutional. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
But last year, Justice Clarence Thomas, arguably the most conservative member of the right-leaning high court, suggested its landmark same-sex marriage ruling should be reconsidered. Many other hard-won civil rights are now at risk, with a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ bills considered and often passed by increasingly far-right legislatures, including Wyoming’s.
The Wyoming Freedom Caucus, which gains more seats in the Legislature every election, has led the assault, mostly against the transgender population. Earlier this year saw passage of a bill that bans trans girls from middle and high school sports competitions.
“Don’t say gay” bills that ban discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3 classrooms passed the Wyoming Senate two years in a row but died in the House. Preventing gender-affirming medical care of minors is another issue backed by Wyoming’s hard-line conservative leaders.
The new documentary, which mixes celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres with Wyoming residents discussing the effects of Shepard’s life and death, ends with an emotional look at how fragile LGBTQ+ protections are now.
In 2016, there was a wave of “bathroom bills” across the country aimed at keeping trans students from using restrooms aligned with their gender identity. Wyoming considered one but fortunately killed the bill.
Of all the powerful moments in “The Matthew Shepard Story,” none can match graphic photos of him in the hospital. Close-ups of his bandaged face, which the killers bludgeoned with the end of a pistol, are shocking. I don’t know how anyone can look at these images and not cry.
The natural reaction is to look away from something so disturbing, so horrific. But it’s important to bear witness. Evil must be faced head-on, with eyes open.
Two people who grew up in Laramie committed the crimes, tried to hide and destroy evidence, and one — McKinney — falsely claimed “gay panic” caused him to do it, as if that could possibly excuse his actions. Shepard will always be the person who comes to mind when we imagine the worst violence that can be perpetrated.
This is a disheartening time, when gay rights progress is being thwarted and in the crosshairs of both politicians and, in extreme cases, domestic terrorists. Liam Cudmore, owner of Queer Therapy in New York City, noted in the documentary that while Shepard’s death was horrible, violence against gays has become commonplace.
Mass shootings at LGBTQ+ nightclubs in Florida and Colorado, he said, “teach that our queer youth — and queer people in general — should be terrified that based on their identity, they can be slaughtered.”
In the documentary, Sara Burlingame, executive director of Wyoming Equality and former state legislator, said this is also a challenging time for those unwilling to back LGBTQ+ rights.
“Conservative folks, you’re going to have to find your moral courage,” she said. “History is going to look back on what you did and did not do during this time, and I think they’re going to judge you harshly for how rapidly you capitulated your values.”