FEATURE

The Book of Matthew

Matt Shepard died 20 years ago, but his name lives on in stories, on stage, in the law—and in the classroom.
Illustration by Peter Horvath

Chapter I

How Matt Became Matthew

In the first hour of October 7, 1998—as the windchill dipped into the 20s and clear skies allowed the stars to break apart the darkness—this much remained true: Most of the world had never heard of Matt Shepard. And he was alone.

The detail most often cited to underscore the brutality of what he’d been through is the blood. According to the people who first saw Matt’s unconscious body, his face was covered in it, his skin visible only in the tracks left by his tears. But there’s another detail that truly illustrates how much Matt endured: His own mother didn’t recognize his face, but for the telltale bump on his left ear and the blueness of his half-open eye, piercing through bruise, blood and bandage.

As if he had wanted to see her one last time.

Yet, by the first hour of October 12, 1998—as Matt Shepard died in his bed at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, having never come out of his coma—something had changed: People in every corner of the country had seen his face. And he had become a catalyst.

The victim of a crime that demanded reaction.

Just after midnight on October 7, at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson had offered Matt a ride. According to police and prosecutors, they lured Matt with the intent to rob him, perhaps by pretending to be gay. McKinney’s confession would later include repeated references to Matt as a “queer”—as “that fag.”

They took him east of Laramie. And they brutally beat him. According to the autopsy report, Matt suffered about 20 blows to the head from a .357 Magnum. His attackers tied his wrists to a crude wooden fence, took his shoes and wallet, and left him for dead.

Matt held on as long as he could. Only after a cyclist stumbled upon him—famously mistaking the 5-foot-2 figure for a fallen scarecrow—did Matt receive transport to a hospital; he arrived there 21 hours after the attack. It took another 43 hours for his parents to get to him from Saudi Arabia, where they were living. Matt died three days after their arrival.

Meanwhile, national media outlets descended on Laramie. Any household that tuned in to the news saw Matt’s cherubic face. In that face, some viewers saw themselves, vulnerable to attack. Others saw their complicity and silence staring back at them.

Matt’s death marked a beginning. Two days later, a vigil in Washington, D.C., drew thousands of people. Lawmakers and celebrities spoke out, demanding better laws, an end to violence, and an awareness that gay people not only exist but deserve to have their humanity respected. In the coming days and months, Matt’s funeral and his assailants’ trials garnered national attention, thrusting opposing groups into the spotlight. Followers of Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church protested both Matt’s funeral and McKinney’s trial with hateful signs, determined to depict Matt as a symbol of sin. At the trial, a group of Matt’s supporters—led by his friend Romaine Patterson—dressed as angels, shielding the Shepard family from the disturbing words and images.

In his statement to the court during McKinney’s trial,  Matt's father Dennis Shepard would later say, “Matt became a symbol, some say a martyr, putting a boy-next-door face on hate crimes. That’s fine with me. Matt would be thrilled if his death would help others.”

On December 1, 1998—what would have been Matt’s 22nd birthday—Judy and Dennis Shepard incorporated the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a nonprofit education and advocacy program that has worked tirelessly to champion better hate-crime laws and better reporting and investigation of them. It has since created a suite of resources for LGBTQ youth and inspired allies around the world to take action.

Ever since, we’ve been reminded—even now, 20 years after his death—that Matthew Shepard changed the world. In some ways he never left; his legacy lives on in the work carried out in his name.

Chapter II

The Matt You May Not Know (in the Words of the People Who Knew Him)

His parents never called him Matthew; that's the name the world gave him. "Matt is our son; Matthew is the icon," his dad says. Both deserve to be remembered.

You may know the story of Matthew Shepard. Meet Matt.

Matt was a human rights advocate.

What he held in his heart was equity and equality. Even on the playground, playground bullies were what he hated the most and he would try to arbitrate. ... He never understood why people felt the need to bully someone else. —Judy Shepard, mother of Matt Shepard and co-founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation

The hope of a better world free of harassment and discrimination because a person was different kept him motivated. —Dennis Shepard, father of Matt Shepard and co-founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, in his 1999 statement to the court

Matt was an eager theater kid.

He started in an adult theater group, here in Casper, [Wyoming,] in the fifth grade. He asked me, “Should I send in this application?” I said, “Heck yes!”

So he sent it in and I got a call saying, “Well, we’re not sure. He’s so young. We’ve had problems with young people like this before.” I said, “Well you haven’t met Matt.”

A week later, they said, “We don’t know what we’d do without him, ’cause he’s always very helpful. He’s smiling. He asks questions because he wants to learn.” They just fell in love with him, and so did the junior college theater group.
—Dennis Shepard 

Matt wasn’t perfect…

He was a human being, not just a photograph or a newspaper article. ... He was an imperfect human who would never have wanted to be put on a pedestal or thought of as some kind of perfect, iconic individual. ...

He was a 21-year-old college student who drank too much and smoked too many cigarettes and didn’t go to class enough, just like every 21-year-old college student. ... He had struggles and was trying to overcome them. He was fighting for a good life, not just for himself, but for everybody.
—Judy Shepard

…but he was kind and giving.

He was a peer counselor, from the earliest grades that they have things like that in schools. He liked to be friends with kids who weren’t popular. He liked to make connections amongst other people. ... And it was because he was driven by kindness, mostly. It was important to him to be kind. —Jason Marsden, friend of Matt and Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation

"We believe that what will ultimately solve this problem is countless millions of people deciding that they want to erase hate from their corner of the world. ... I try to make them understand that despite being known for having been a victim, Matt was actually a leader in that kind of thinking." —Jason Marsden

Chapter III

The Wind Passed Through Wyoming and Held Your Name

by Cory Collins

On a Wednesday night
they found you,
tied to a two-post fence on a two-rutted road,
your straw-colored hair painted red.
Your body stuffed
with swallowed blood. 

Your body—
unmoving,
barely held together,
so broken and still
the passing cyclist
struggling through deep sand
nearly mistook you for 
an effigy.
But you drew breath,
and kept the birds at bay.

I wonder if you held on to life
so you could breathe it into the wind.
That wind that connects
all of the “funny” children,
the “beat-of-their-own-drum” children.

The wind we breathe in at birth
and exhale in the exact moment
we are reminded what we are.

The wind that Rebecca Wight∞ felt on 
Dead Woman’s Hollow—
before five bullets hurt her lover,
before the seventh bullet hit her liver. 

The wind that cooled the concrete
on a summer night in Jackson Heights,
where three skinheads brought a hammer
to a schoolyard;
where Julio Rivera∞ took his last.

The wind passed through Wyoming,
and held your name.
We still hear it when it soughs 
through the trees—
us children still standing
in this forest where those trees
fall, but don’t always
make noise.

The wind left your lips,
Hopecrow,
and caressed cheeks
that should have been kissed:

I hope that 
Billy Jack∞
Steen Fenrich∞
Fred Martinez∞
Gwen Araujo∞
Sakia Gunn∞
Scotty Joe Weaver∞
Lawrence King∞
Angie Zapata∞
Paige Clay∞
Giovanni Melton∞
and her
and him
and them
and them
and them∞
breathed in the love
you whispered into the wind
before breathing out life,
and passing it on.

Like a love note
signed by those who hope
their name
is the last.

And I dream that you all
will rise again
from the ashes 
of the UpStairs Lounge∞;
that you will breathe again
through Pulse’s∞ bullet holes;
your own heartbeat
restored,
and allowed to love—
untethered.

Where there are no fences.


∞Google them.
Write their names in stone.
And trace them.

Hold the wind inside your hands.
And embrace them.

"A profound sense of injustice for Matt is, I think, what drives [Judy and Dennis], because they are acutely aware of how bright he was, [and] what his ambitions were in the areas of human rights and civil rights, which he was very passionate about. They feel like they’re carrying out the work that he was destined to do." —Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation

A candle-lit vigil being held in memory of Matthew Shepard.
Getty Images

Chapter IV

Are We Better Now?

Matt’s death cut deep. For the LGBTQ community, he was the worst that could happen to them. For parents, he was the all-American son they could have—or should have—loved. For homophobes, he was their worst fear: a sympathetic figure. They all attached themselves to Matt and helped create the man we know as Matthew Shepard: a symbol, a martyr, a catalyst for a cause.

Before Matt’s death, violence against LGBTQ people—when it wasn’t state-sanctioned—had largely gone under the radar. The AIDS crisis had been dismissed by many people as a side effect of the gay “lifestyle.” With so little pop-culture representation, so little access to unbiased information and so little access to queer communities, it was easy in 1998 for LGBTQ people to feel—and be—ignored.

A generation has passed since we lost Matt Shepard. We are a world away from the world he knew. But violence against the queer community continues to occur. Many young LGBTQ people still do not feel safe.

Tracking violence against LGBTQ people then and now remains difficult. Before the landmark Shepard-Byrd Act of 2009, violence based on gender identity was not considered a hate crime. Due to this, violence against transgender people remained unrecorded. Even now, the voluntary system of reporting hate crimes to the FBI is inadequate. The most recent FBI data details hate crimes committed in 2016. We know the 1,076 reported hate crimes that targeted victims due to their sexual orientation—and the 124 crimes committed based on someone’s gender identity—represented but a fraction of the violence enacted against queer people across the country.

Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI agent and currently the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s programs and operations director, says that systems of accountability are broken.

“It’s lack of reporting; it’s counting too many things too many times; it’s not reporting when you should; it’s misidentifying the biased motivation if you’re the police officer,” she says. “It’s a whole host of breaks in that circle that need to be fixed.”

There is some evidence to suggest that the number of physical assaults targeting LGBTQ kids at school has decreased since Matt’s death. In 2001, GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey found that more than 20 percent of LGBTQ students had been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation. By the 2015 survey, the figure was 13 percent. The portion of those students who said they felt unsafe at school went from 68.6 percent to 57.6 percent in that same time span.

But violence still looms over the lives of many LGBTQ kids. A 2018 Human Rights Campaign report revealed that more than 70 percent of LGBTQ students had heard verbal threats because of their identity; 3 in 10 experienced physical threats. More than 1 in 10 had been sexually attacked or raped.

The Shepards know that these kids live in a reality that’s different from Matt’s. But in the face of pushback against LGBTQ rights and acceptance, the Shepards also know that these kids deserve better.

 

Chapter V

Four Ways to Bring Matt to Your Classroom

Discussing Matt’s story in your classroom can help non-LGBTQ students better empathize with the struggles and strengths of their LGBTQ classmates. It can also help LGBTQ students see themselves in your curriculum and learn about the resources available to them.

Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Matthew Shepard Foundation resources
    The Matthew Shepard Foundation offers several opportunities for schools and educators to take advantage of its expertise and resources. These range from affordable speaking engagements to its guide Commemorating the Life of Matthew Shepard: Supporting LGBT Students, which includes lessons and discussion guides for telling Matt’s story. The team also offers to video conference with classrooms for Q&As or discussions.
     
  2. The Laramie Project
    Bring The Laramie Project, one of the nation’s most-performed plays, to your school’s stage or to your English and history classrooms. The Matthew Shepard Foundation provides supplemental resources, including photography, video, historical context and post-show conversations via Skype. English students can explore such themes as who gets to tell this story, who is notably absent, and the relationship between place and perspective. History students can place the story within the context of hate crimes and civil rights martyrs throughout U.S. history.
     
  3. Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine
    Educators can stream or show Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, a documentary by Matt’s close friend Michele Josue. The film not only provides a nuanced, empathy-inspiring biography of Matt but also situates his death within the history of LGBTQ history and hate crimes, allowing for a broader discussion about Matt’s influence.
     
  4. October Mourning
    On October 12, 1998—the day Matt died—author Lesléa Newman arrived in Laramie, where she was scheduled to be the keynote speaker for the University of Wyoming’s Gay Awareness Week. Matt’s murder inspired her to write October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, a book of 68 connected poems about Matt, the circumstances of his death and its impact. The poems are for young readers, and the book’s appendices include explanations of the different poetic forms used and additional resources to guide students.

Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.

“There’s a generation of advocates and activists that I don’t know would have gone down that path, had they not witnessed what happened to Matt. ... Those people are now in the corporate world. They are educators. They are parents themselves. ... Those folks are now the influencers. Change is coming, and Matt opened the door. Matt’s story opened the door.” —Judy Shepard

prologue and epilogue

The Life and Legacy of Matt Shepard

A lot of the gay people from Germany did not live to see the end of fascism. And a lot of those who defeated fascism didn’t survive the Lavender Scare. And a lot of those who did, didn’t make it to Stonewall. And, God bless those queens, a lot of them didn’t make it through the epidemic. And those of us who made it through the epidemic didn’t all make it to same sex marriage and an end to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. … There’s never been a time when there wasn’t some past injustice that was righted by somebody who’s long dead. And there’s never gonna be a time when there isn’t another one coming down the road that we might miss. But we’re part of the unbroken chain of hands that shaped those events, and what we do now matters, and the footprints we leave need to be worth following. —Jason Marsden

December 1, 1976 Matthew Wayne Shepard is born in Casper, Wyoming.

May 1995 Matt graduates from the American School in Switzerland, mere months after surviving a violent assault and rape during a school trip to Morocco.

Summer 1998 Matt moves to Laramie and enrolls at the University of Wyoming after brief stints at Catawba College in North Carolina and Casper College in Wyoming. He chooses to study political science and foreign relations.

October 7, 1998 Matt is brutally beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who leave him tied to a fence not long after midnight. Matt isn’t discovered until 6 p.m.; he is admitted into a hospital sometime after 9 p.m., approximately 21 hours after his assailants had left him.

“As an [FBI] agent that worked these violations, I knew we had no jurisdiction to help them, and that was quite crushing.” —Cynthia Deitle

October 12, 1998 Matt succumbs to his injuries, dying just after midnight. The University of Wyoming’s long-planned Gay Awareness Week begins.

October 14, 1998 A vigil in Matt’s honor is held on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. It draws thousands of people, including celebrities and lawmakers. Among the speakers is an emotional Ellen DeGeneres, whose TV show had been canceled that April, less than a year after she came out.

“I’m so pissed off. I can’t stop crying. ... This is what I was trying to stop. This is exactly why I did what I did.” —Ellen DeGeneres

October 16, 1998 Matt’s funeral is held in Casper, Wyoming.

December 1, 1998 The Matthew Shepard Foundation is incorporated on what would have been Matt's 22nd birthday.

April 6, 1999 Russell Henderson pleads guilty to the murder and kidnapping of Matthew Shepard and is sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison.

November 5, 1999 A day after Dennis Shepard delivers an emotional statement, Aaron McKinney is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

February 26, 2000 The Laramie Project—a play by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project—premieres in Denver, Colorado. Based on interviews conducted in Laramie after Matt’s murder, the play has since been performed for more than 30 million people.

“The Laramie Project was transformative to so many people who participated, either in the production or even as an audience member.” —Judy Shepard

March 30, 2000 Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack announces the Matthew Shepard Scholarship Program, annual full scholarships for LGBTQ high school seniors who’ll be attending Iowa state schools. (Scholarships across the country—from Baruch College in New York City to Los Medanos College in Contra Pittsburg, California—now bear Matt’s name.)

March 27, 2001 The first attempt at hate crime legislation that specifies sexual orientation is sponsored by Massachusetts Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy and fails in the U.S. Senate.

January 10, 2002 The film version of The Laramie Project premieres at the Sundance Film Festival. Later featured on HBO, it receives four Emmy nominations.

June 26, 2003 In Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court rules that sodomy laws—used to criminalize sexual encounters between same-sex couples—are unconstitutional. 

“I don’t think [recent gay rights advances] would have happened in the way and in the pace that they did without Matt’s story galvanizing so many hearts.” —Jason Marsden

October 12, 2009 On the 11th anniversary of Matt’s death, the script of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later premieres, with more than 100 readings taking place across the United States and in 14 different countries.

October 22, 2009 Congress passes the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, an expansion of existing U.S. hate crime law. Among other things, the law redefines hate crimes to include those motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

October 28, 2009 President Barack Obama signs the Shepard-Byrd Act into law.

“Right away, we had greater jurisdiction to investigate hate crimes against a protected class we had otherwise denied for decades. ... It’s never lost on me how powerful Matt’s case was to so many people and how one set of parents could change the law in such a dramatic way.” —Cynthia Deitle

May 6, 2013 Jason Collins comes out as gay in a Sports Illustrated story, becoming the first active, openly gay NBA player—and the first active player from any of the "big four" leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL)—to come out publicly. He chooses the jersey number 98 in honor of Matt. The Brooklyn Nets #98 jersey, at one point, becomes the top-selling jersey on the NBA's online store.

October 4, 2013 Matt’s childhood friend Michele Josue debuts her documentary Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine. It goes on to receive wide critical acclaim and a 2016 Daytime Emmy Award.

May 13, 2015 The city council of Laramie, Wyoming, passes an ordinance that prohibits employment, housing and public-facility discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Uncover the deeper meaning of Matt Shepard's story with our best practices guide Civil Rights Done Right.

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