The story of Matthew Shepard, a young life taken at the hands of brutality, is 15 years old, but for those old to remember the crime will never forget.
On the night of Oct. 6, 1998 in Laramie, Wy., Shepard was 21 when he met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, also 21, at a bar and said he was too drunk to drive home. The two drove him out to a remote spot, where they robbed, pistol whipped, and tortured him. They then tied the bludgeoned Shepard to a fence -- allegedly his face was completely covered in blood save for where tears had washed it away -- and left him there to die. Eighteen hours later, he was found by a bicyclist who initially thought he was a scarecrow. Shepard’s injuries were so severe that doctors could not operate, and he died on Oct. 12, 1998.
His murder became a media sensation and friends of Shepard’s as well as the girlfriend of McKinney said the incident was fueled by hatred of gays. The two men were sentenced to life in prison -- spared the death penalty by Shepard’s parents.
Robin Wood, the director of development at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, was 14 at the time of the murder and lived just south of Laramie in Denver, Col.
“It was the imagery of the fence, the fact that he was so young, and that it was just so senseless,” he said. “I think certainly the gay community, because people were beginning to feel more comfortable being out at a younger age, it was just really scary to think that if you were hanging out with friends at a bar and talked to the wrong person, you were going to end up dead.”
Melissa Etheridge was just one of many musicians who were moved by the story and turned it into music -- she wrote “Scarecrow” in his honor:
Waiting to die wondering why
Rising above all in the name of love
Dennis and Judy Shepard, the parents of Matthew, decided to stand up for their son and founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation shortly after his death. Since then, Judy has toured the world speaking to schools, universities, and political leaders about making communities a safer places for not just the LGBT community, but everyone.
Also, Matthew’s Place, an online community for young LGBT bloggers, has been resurrected and gives youth a place to talk to others in their position and to hear both stories of sadness and triumph that they can relate to.
The foundation works with drama groups across the country to make the play based on Shepard’s story, “The Laramie Project” a reality. Susan Cunningham Burk leads the effort using her background as a news anchor in Wyoming at the time of the murder to provide background information as well as press clippings, photographs and other items to make the play come to life. Many schools have had trouble getting the play to get to the stage as some administrators have felt it wasn’t a family-friendly story.
The foundation was also instrumental in working to pass a national anti-discrimination law. Shepard’s death -- as well as that of James Byrd, Jr., an African American man tortured and killed by white supremacists just a few months before in Texas -- inspired the law that was finally added to the books by President Barack Obama in 2009, giving more weight to crimes committed out of hate.
“We keep those stories together in many ways because it shows that, you know, 1998 was just not a good year to be different… hate covers more than just one demographic,” Wood said.
However, the motives behind Shepard’s killing have been questioned, including in “The Book of Matt” published in September. Stephen Jimenez, who is gay, had set out to learn more about Shepard and his death for a screenplay, but in his investigation discovered that McKinney and Henderson allegedly had only killed him after a meth binge and that Shepard wasn’t as innocent as people believe.
“Attempts now to rewrite the story of this hate crime appear to be based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumors and innuendo rather than the actual evidence gathered by law enforcement and presented in a court of law,” according to a statement by the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
However, today, Wood points out that the foundation has a higher purpose than just the name of Matthew Shepard and works to eliminate hate of all kinds.
On the 15th anniversary of his death, the foundation is hosting the Bear to Make a Difference Gala in Denver. George Takei, an openly gay actor who has used his witty banter on social media to reach out to millions, will be honored with the Making A Difference Award.Christiana Lilly