Two Decades Since Matthew Shepard: What's Different?
Matthew Shepard's Story
21 years ago as of 2019, on October 12, a 21-year-old gay man named Matthew Shepard was robbed, savagely pistol-whipped and chained to a Texas gate to die, setting into motion a chain of events that still reverberate through the small town of Laramie, Wyoming, to this day.
Some have claimed that this was a robbery gone bad while others have said that this was a horrifying hate crime. Certainly, it's been argued many times by the perpetrators of the crime—Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney—and their supporters that Matthew Shepard's murder was anything else. Some have even argued that Shepard's murder was the result of dabbling with crystal meth, and that he knew Aaron McKinney because he had been—according to Stephen Jimenez, author of The Book Of Matt: Hidden Truths About The Murder of Matthew Shepard—involved sexually with him.
McKinney and Henderson were ultimately found guilty of having murdered Shepard, and an eponymous foundation was established by Judy Shepard in the over two decades since the crime. The crime itself has spawned an award-winning play and movie—The Laramie Project, one of the most moving productions I've ever witnessed come to life on either stage or screen—and has brought into even sharper focus just how dangerous and deadly that intolerance can be.
A Clear Hate Crime
You see, while I didn't know about Matthew Shepard at all until the early 2000s when a friend invited me to a stage production of The Laramie Project, I became thoroughly engrossed in the subject. I still cannot conceive of any sort of reason why anyone would take a person, allegedly rob them and pistol-whip them multiple times, and then leave them alone to die. I cannot imagine what it had to have been like for Matthew to look up at the sky on that cold October night while chained to that gate and realize that this was quite probably the last morning he might see. To so viciously brutalize someone and then leave them to die simply smacks of pure hatred, plain and simple, and hatred of who you believe that person is or what he or she is about.
He wasn't even recognized as a person when he was ultimately discovered, according to a range of reports; he was believed to be a scarecrow at the time until someone realized the young man was no scarecrow.
The Matthew Shepard case was one that got North America, if not the world, talking about hate crimes again, and it's a case that shakes me to my core every time I realize it's October and the stories about Matthew Shepard start resurfacing. I can't even begin to comprehend the level of pain that must strike in the hearts of Matthew's parents every year.
We Have to Talk About Anti-LGBTQ Crimes
But we have to keep talking about Matt Shepard, and other LGBTQ individuals who still endure terrible, deep-seated hatred daily. If we do not talk about history, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, and it seems that we still have a lot to learn. There is a frightening number of LGBTQ+ individuals who are assaulted every year, and some of these attacks do result in death. According to NBCNews, which cited data from the FBI, anti-LGBTQ attacks rose in 2017 by three percent over the previous year. Gallup estimates that the LGBTQ+ community comprises 4.5 percent of the population of the United States, but according to the FBI report cited in the NBCNews article, they make up 16 percent of the federally reported hate crimes.
Matthew Shepard might be among the best-known victims of hate crime in the LGBTQ+ community, but there are also hundreds of other would-be Matthew Shepards across North America, fighting to have their voices heard. For every person insisting that what happened to Matthew Shepard was not the result of a hate crime, there are a wealth of people out there reminding us that Matt Shepard was a young, LGBTQ+ man who had an entire life ahead of him and a family that loved and still love him.
We need to keep talking about Matthew Shepard because any kid who feels they belong to the LGBTQ+ community could very well have been Matthew. They could very well become Matthew, and unless we keep talking about Matthew Shepard, his murder, and the aftershocks that reeled through the community of Laramie, Wyoming, we're doomed to remain in the status quo.