One night in October 1998, Matthew Shepard was led away from the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming by Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. The two stole $20 from Matthew and then violently beat him, after which they drove to a secluded area, tied him to a fence, and left him to die in the near-freezing darkness, where he remained for 18 hours. Upon being discovered, Matthew was rushed to the hospital where he died three days later from massive head injuries, surrounded by people who loved him.
What could cause such a savage act? Matthew, who was 21 years old, was gay.
This tragedy and its aftermath was the basis for writer and director Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project’s 2000 play The Laramie Project, which was adapted to film in 2002.
Despite the unfathomable sadness of that event, Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, brought a message of love, equality and understanding during a two-hour presentation Wednesday night in UW-Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Room entitled Erase Hate: The Meaning of Matthew.
Since 2000, Judy Shepard has traveled countless miles, given thousands of speeches, written a book about the atrocity and has been a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. “There was a huge hole in my life, but I know Matt would be disappointed if I just gave up,” she said.
Over the last decade, Judy and her husband have also worked to broaden hate crime legislation to include sexual orientation. In 1998, there were no criminal statutes in Wyoming to include that as criteria; a measure was brought before the state legislature shortly after Matthew’s death, but it failed in the House of Representatives.
In 1999, former President Bill Clinton attempted to extend federal hate crime legislation to include homosexuals, women and people with disabilities, but those efforts were rejected by the U.S. House of Representatives. It wasn’t until July 2009 that the Matthew Shepard Act was signed into law.
Its passage not only extends the federal hate crimes law to include atrocities committed based on the victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or disability, but also affords the federal government the ability to step in on cases in which local authorities are unable or unwilling to mete out appropriate punishment.
In 1998, Judy and Dennis Shepard also established the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization which works to “replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance” through various education and outreach efforts — and by continuing to tell Matthew’s story.
“We need to speak out – we can only educate the public when we speak out,” said Judy.
She noted that even in the 21st century, there is a lack of equality for the LGBT community, evidenced in current debates over the definition of marriage and the fact that more than a dozen U.S. states don’t protect employees from job discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
“We’re all different but we all have the same dream – just to be happy. We all deserve it and we don’t have the right to deny that to anyone, ” Judy said. “You are who you are and you love who you love and that’s just the way it is.”