LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – On the evening of Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard took himself to the Laramie, WY. bar, the Fireside Lounge.
He would be found the following morning tied to a fence on a hill in a desolate, wind-swept area overlooking the college town. He’d been severely beaten. When he was found, his face was covered in his blood, except where the tears rolled down his face as he suffered in the elements.
He was transported to a critical care hospital in Fort Collins, CO. There, he was placed on life support and in a coma for the next five days
On Oct. 12, at 12:53 a.m. Shepard – his family by his bedside – died.
His murder was a shock to the tiny college town of Laramie – and the nation.
Cathy Renna, Communications Director at the National LGBTQ Task Force in Washington D.C., tells 6 News she was in Wyoming the day after Shepard was found. At the time, she worked for GLAAD, the Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media monitoring organization.
She flew there to support the community as they faced an onslaught of national media.
“These kids were literally hiding in the student center,” she says. “Media was bombarding them.”
She arrived in Laramie and immediately went to campus.
“I went straight to the Newman Center, which is the Catholic services center on campus,” she recalls. “And there were about 1,000 people in a town of 26,000 people. They’re at a vigil for Matt, since Matt was in Ford Collins in the hospital.”
Renna remained in Laramie until a few days after Shepard died. She moderated the press conference the morning his death was announced.
“I’ll never forget I was wearing, like, a blue shirt and a black vest because it was chilly” Renna says. “I mean, it’s Wyoming in October. And my mother saw it on television, and I never forget, she called me and she asked me if I was wearing a bulletproof vest. I was like, actually, it’s from J Crew. But, you know, I appreciated that she was worried.”
She returned to D.C. to attend a rally at the U.S. Capitol. There, 25,000 people stood demanding action on hate crimes by the federal government.
“We had all of these very prominent people come to speak out about this hate crime,” she recalls. “It was the first time that a hate crime had gotten that much attention. And remember, that was the same year that in Jasper, James Byrd was brutally murdered in an anti-black hate crime. And so the country was already talking about these things. But, you know, we also had a president in office who picked up the phone and called Matt’s parents.”
Shepard’s funeral was attended by hundreds. Most were there to mourn, but the Westboro Baptist Church was there to protest. They were surrounded by friends of Shepard’s who created giant angel wings and blocked the group’s hateful signs.
Despite this outpouring of grief and outrage – on Oct. 20, 1998, nearly 100 people were arrested in NYC during a march and protest honoring Shepard – the 21-year-old’s legacy has been shrouded in the mists of time.
Grace Wojcik, director of the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center at Michigan State University, says when she approached students in the center Thursday and asked them if they knew who Matthew Shepard was.
“Is he an actor?” one student asked, she reported to 6 News.
That’s despite a piece of the fence Shepard’s beaten, bloodied and broken body was tied to being in the offices on campus. There is also an explanation of why the photo of the flower-covered fence, and the piece of fence, were there and who Matthew Shepard was.
“I had to say, no he was a college student, a gay college student, who was beaten and killed,” Wojcik says. “His death was a pivotal point for the national movement for LGBTQ people. It was so hard to put into words this tangible and important issue.”
Bob Witeck, a public relations professional in Washington D.C. also serves on the board for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The nonprofit was founded by Shepard’s parents Judy and Dennis in the wake of his death.
“That hate crime stirred the conscience of America — and, actually, people all over the world — who realized that just for being gay, you might pay with your life,” Witeck tells 6 News. “Hate crimes since that time have rippled across all society. Hate is an epidemic across the world, as we see in the Middle East, at the moment.”
Addressing hate fits into Shepard’s life goals, Witeck says. Before his death, he wanted to become a diplomat and advocate for the LGBTQ community. The foundation that bears his name carries on with that advocacy against hate in all its guises, Witeck says.
MSU Adjunct Professor Tim Retzloff teaches LGBTQ studies and history says Shepard’s murder was a galvanizing moment in history.
“I think the Matthew Shepard case kind of woke people up in terms of him being kind of an everyday person that people could identify with, that it took place in Wyoming, that he was kind of placed against this fence and kind of a symbolic manner kind of accentuated the brutality of the crime,” he tells 6 News. “The fact that celebrities came out, you know, there were candlelight vigils around the country, and Ellen DeGeneres spoke at a rally about it. And then the President of the United States, Bill Clinton came out.”
He notes that this was a moment in LGBTQ history when activism had shifted from HIV because the release of successful medications made it a manageable condition instead of a “death sentence,” and became “a moment of maybe kind of shifting the movement’s attention.”
“Many of [young members of the LGBTQ community] feeling they should be out,” says Retzloff. “That the world might be safer for them, and the murder of Matthew Shepard was kind of a wake-up call that — you know — maybe things aren’t quite so safe.”
This year, when introducing Matthew Shepard as a conversation point in his classes, he says the students did not know who he was.
“It’s kind of shocking to have 25 years go by and realize that there’s been all kinds of history that students don’t remember,” he says.
While Shepard’s name may not be fully in the frame for some, his legacy continues to impact the country, Retzloff points out.
The U.S. did not pass a hate crimes law until 2009, more than a decade after Shepard’s death. The law was called the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Byrd was a Black man who was tied to a truck in Jasper, TX in 1998 and dragged to his death because he was Black. The family of Byrd and Shepard worked together lobbying federal lawmakers to pass the law.
The two men who would be convicted in the case of Shepard’s death — Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. They tried to argue they killed Shepard because he made sexual advances on them. The defense has been labeled as “gay panic defense.” 17 states and D.C. have banned the defense, according to the Movement Advancement Project. Michigan lawmakers are currently debating making this state the 18th to ban the defense.
Regardless of the historical reverberations, Retzloff says remembering history is important and so are the names of people involved.
“This is a really important thing that we do as a society and as a culture,” Retzloff says. “It’s part of how we heal, but also part of how we make sure not to forget and continue to be galvanized by events that are really, horrible. And we don’t want a world where a 21-year-old gay kid at the University of Wyoming could just suddenly lose his life because he encountered a couple of guys who don’t like the fact that he’s gay.”
Witeck concurs and says Shepard would have had a message today.
“I think his message, Matthew’s message would be that we’re all accountable. That we’re all blessed with the gift of life and to use your life to educate and respect and open your hearts and minds to all people especially people who are different from us,” Witeck says. “I think young people are captivated by that mission and they believe it strongly. Believe it because they don’t understand why there is so much hate in the world. But I also want to say they need to be made themselves to feel safe and that’s our job as adults to make young people feel safe everywhere they go.”