Matthew Shepard: The story of one of America’s worst homophobic murders

"He was just an ordinary kid who wanted to make the world a better place.”

HomoCulture Days of Awareness Brian Webb

This article was published on October 12th, 2021

When 21-year-old Matthew Shepard walked into a dive bar in October 1998, little did he know that death awaited him, and in the cruelest of fashion. The University of Wyoming student was grisly murdered by two assailants for simply being gay. 

His death sent shockwaves across America. It is widely seen as one of the country’s worst gay-hate murders. 

“He was just an ordinary kid who wanted to make the world a better place,” his father Dennis Shepard told ABC’s Nightline in a past interview. “And they took that away from him and from us.” 

Matthew was born into a wealthy family and was the eldest of two sons to Judy Peck and Dennis Shepard. His father described him as “a mischievous, stubborn and argumentative child.” He studied at different colleges before enrolling at the University of Wyoming to study political science. 

 Openly gay life

Matthew was interested in international human rights from a young age and had aspirations to become a civil rights advocate. “His goal was to work for the State Department to try to bring the same privileges and rights he thought he had in America to other countries,” his father said.

He lived an openly gay life and even came out to his mother on the phone after graduating from high school. “What took you so long to tell me?” Judy Shepard recalled. She reassured him that she’d known for years, adding that “rejection was not an issue.”

On that fateful day of October 6, 1998, Matthew had met up with friends from the school’s LGBTQ student group to plan upcoming events for LGBTQ awareness week. He later headed to a bar in Laramie for a beer, albeit without his friends.

At the Fireside Bar & Lounge, Matthew was accosted by roofing workers Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. They pretended to be gay to win Matt’s confidence. Russell and McKinney then offered Matthew a ride home only to rob him once they got to the truck.

Passing cyclist

Besides seizing his keys, wallet, and shoes, they repeatedly beat him with the end of a pistol that was in McKinney’s possession. The killers drove Shepard to a remote area where they further hit him on the head severally and left to die tied to a log fence. Matthew was found 18 hours later by a passing cyclist. 

He was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit in a coma. Matthew’s parents, who were in Saudi Arabia, flew to the Colorado hospital and spent time with their son up until his demise five days later.  

His death sparked national outrage, with thousands taking to the streets in protest in Washington D.C. Politicians and celebrities, including prominent queer actors like Ellen DeGeneres, addressed a vigil at the U.S. Capitol.

Although Russell and McKinney were found guilty of felony murder, they were not charged with a hate crime. The federal hate crime laws did not include protection for gay people at the time. 

Matthew Shepard Foundation

It wasn’t until 2009 that President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It established a federal law that criminalized attacks based on a victim’s identity.

 Following Matthew’s death, Judy and Dennis Shepard set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation to honor his legacy. The Foundation’s mission is “to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.”

More than two decades later after the incident, America has witnessed a notable shift in its culture. It has inspired a movement among younger LGBTQ people, according to Jason Marsden, former executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

“Matt’s story, I think, was inspirational to many people, especially people his age who had not previously been active in LGBT rights who started doing so. Some have gone on to be really prominent activists in the community,” Marsden said.

Matt’s story continues to be displayed through various creative works. The most notable creative work is The Laramie Project, a play about the reaction to the 1998 incident. It is popular among American high schools and has even been performed across several countries.

Fight far from over

Even then, the fight for LGBTQ equality is far from over. Queer and trans people of color are still vulnerable to hate crimes. Judy Shepard warned that the hate is still much out there, adding that, “It’s still a very hard time to be a [transgender] kid in America.”

On the 23rd anniversary of Matt’s death, Judy hopes the nation and the LGBTQ community in large will remember his son for his life and legacy despite having a string of college life flaws.

 “Just like every other 21-year-old college student, he had flaws. He was a 21-year-old college student who drank too much, smoked too much and didn’t go to class enough.

 “People just were drawn to him. And there was a great loss not just to us but to all his friends. And people who hadn’t met him yet.”

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