DNA #225

LGBTQIA+ History Month: Matthew Shepard

Matthew Shephard

October is LGBT History Month, to celebrate DNA is republishing important stories from the LGBTQIA+ past; including our iconic role models, stories of our struggles and a celebration of our wins as a community.


Sometimes a crime is so shocking that it strikes a raw nerve in the public consciousness. The killing of Matthew Shepard is an example. On October 6th, 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, USA, 21-year-old university student Matthew Shepard was tied to a wooden fence, tortured and left to die. On the 20th anniversary of one of the worst gay hate crimes in American history, DNA revisits what happened on that night and why. Matthew’s mother, Judy speaks to us about the events following his death, and how the current US President is undermining LGBTIQ civil rights.

First, the events of that evening… Matthew, who was studying political science at Wyoming’s state university, was at The Fireside Lounge in Laramie. At the bar, he was approached by two young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Both were high school drop-outs who held menial jobs.

They offered him a ride home in their car but, instead, drove to a secluded, rural location where they robbed, beat, and pistolwhipped Matthew. After the beating he was hog-tied to a buck-rail fence in near-freezing temperatures and left for dead.

Matt’s injuries were horrific. It was reported that the only part of his face not covered in blood was where it was washed clean by tears. He was discovered, 18 hours later, by cyclist Aaron Kreifels. At first, Kreifels mistook the stricken, limp figure as a scarecrow.

The first police officer to arrive on the scene was Reggie Fluty. She used her bare hands to clear an airway in Matthew’s throat. Initially, he was taken to Laramie’s Ivinson Memorial Hospital before being transferred to a more specialist trauma centre at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.

His wounds included fractures to the back of the skull and front of the right ear and acute brain stem damage, limiting the opportunity of regulating heart rate, body temperature and vital functions. He had various small lacerations on the neck, head and face. The substantial trauma meant doctors were unable to perform surgery.

As he lay unconscious in intensive care, news of the attack and its homophobic nature spread around the world prompting candlelight vigils in many cities. Matthew never regained consciousness and died six days after the assault.

Henderson and McKinney were caught almost immediately. They returned to Laramie that same night where they got into a fight with some other men, which attracted the attention of the police. When Officer Flint Waters arrived at the disturbance, he apprehended Henderson and, while searching McKinney’s vehicle came across a blood-smeared gun, Matthew’s credit card and his shoes.

The pair were charged with aggravated robbery, kidnapping and attempted murder, but when Matt succumbed to his injuries in the early hours of October 12th, the indictments were upgraded to first-degree murder – meaning, if convicted, both could receive the death penalty.

Henderson’s defence moved forward first. In April 1999, he averted going to trial or the prospect of capital punishment by pleading guilty to kidnapping and murder and accepting two consecutive life terms.

McKinney, whose case was heard that Fall, made the same deal so received an identical sentence but, during his trial, McKinney’s attorney proposed a “gay panic defence”, saying that his client had experienced a temporary insanity due to alleged sexual advances by Matthew.

Judy with Matthew (right) and younger brother, Logan.

However, Detective Ben Fritzen was already on record saying that Kristen Price, McKinney’s girlfriend, had confirmed that McKinney revealed the hostility directed against Matthew was because of how he felt “about gays”. It was Price’s statement that alerted police and the media to the homophobic nature of the murder. Price also told police that neither of the men were under the influence of alcohol or drugs on the night they killed Matthew. She later attempted to withdraw her statement.

Both killers were incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. Some details of the crime, as they were presented at the original trials have, in recent years, been subject to conjecture.

In 2004, ABC (USA) news show 20/20 broadcast a segment quoting statements from Henderson, Price, McKinney, prosecutor Cal Rerucha, and a lead investigator. They claimed that the homicide had not occurred because of Matthew’s sexual orientation but had been a drug-related robbery gone wrong.

In 2013, Stephen Jimenez, the producer of the 20/20 piece, published The Book Of Matt: Hidden Truths About The Murder Of Matthew Shepard. In the book, he asserted that Matthew had been a meth dealer and that he and McKinney, his primary executioner, had been engaging in casual sex.

Most critics rejected the book as being poorly researched and containing largely unsubstantiated claims. The police officers who investigated the case rejected the author’s major assumptions outright.

However, in order to gain a deeper understanding of this offence, it is necessary to see Matthew beyond the context of the “gay-bashed victim” and look at some of the other aspects of his life. He was a gregarious, kind-hearted kid, but had his share of demons. Coming out is never easy, especially in a small town. He was also raped while on a high school trip to Morocco. Understandably, numerous panic attacks and bouts of depression followed.

Matthew was HIV positive. Office Reggie Fluty, the cop who cleared his airways with her bare hands, had cuts on her fingers which exposed her to a risk of infection. After taking an AZT regimen for a few months she was given the all-clear.

Surprisingly to many, Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis, didn’t push for the death penalty for Henderson and McKinney. I asked Judy Shepard why.

Matt’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard.

“There was a contentious debate among us when the defence attorneys first brought the proposal forward – to accept two consecutive life sentences and remove consideration for the death penalty,” she says. “In the beginning, we were all against it.”

But, as discussions progressed, the Shepard family learned that if they accepted the life sentences it would mean that there’d be no retrials or appeals every few years. “And that settled the argument for us,” says Judy. “We didn’t want our younger son to have to deal with it, and we didn’t want Matt’s killers to be martyrs of any sort.”

Another feature of the trial was that the hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church, picketed outside the court building (as well as at Shepard’s funeral at St Mark’s Episcopal Church). At the time, Westboro Baptists were led by Fred Phelps, who claimed that disasters are God’s punishment for mankind’s immorality, especially the increasing acceptance of homosexuality.

Outside the courthouse, church members held multi-coloured placards reading “Matt In Hell”, “Thank God for AIDS” and their most infamous slogan, “God Hates Fags”.

In response, one of Matt’s friends, Romaine Patterson, put together a counterdemonstration in which individuals in white robes with massive wings, representing angels, encircled the Westboro group, to block them from the view of mourners.

The Westboro Baptists’ animosity had a profound effect on Matthew’s immediate relatives. “I couldn’t understand how someone could believe they are a minister of God’s love when every word out of them is hate speech,” says Judy. “They clearly thought they had a winning message, pointing their hatred at Matt and at me personally. But it became clear that Fred Phelps and that family were just using Matt’s story to get attention for their outrageous ideas and that it really wasn’t about us at all.”

Despite their unimaginable loss, less than eight weeks after his death, Judy and Dennis established The Matthew Shepard Foundation.

“While Matt was in the hospital, people from all over the country and the world sent us letters, teddy bears and money,” says Judy. “They were urging us to use our voices as accepting parents with the hope that anyone who had rejected somebody because they happened to be gay might rethink that position since they still had the opportunity to include those folks in their life.

“We listened to the public and started the [not-for-profit] organisation. Our goals are to erase hate and replace it with understanding, compassion and acceptance,” she says.

The charity has launched numerous initiatives including, Matthew’s Place, an online community offering support to LGBTIQ teenagers and young adults; the Erase Hate In Business Campaign; and a Resource Guide To Coming Out, among others.

Shortly after the murder, and moved by its brutality, members of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project regularly journeyed to Laramie and, over the course of 18 months, recorded interviews with hundreds of its residents, who expressed their thoughts and feelings concerning what had happened.

These interviews, along with news reports and original court transcripts, were transformed into the play, The Laramie Project in 2000.

Written by Moisés Kaufman, the three-act drama sees eight actors take on nearly 60 different roles. In various productions the cast has included Chad Allen, Andrew Garfield and Russell Tovey.

The play has been performed in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland and helps bring an anti-homophobia message to schools, colleges and community theatres all over the United States. In the United Kingdom the play was included in the General Certificate Of Secondary Education’s English Literature reading list. Kaufman adapted the play into an HBO film in 2002.

In a bizarre turn of events, the Westboro Baptist Church, whose picketing is depicted in the play, actually picketed outside some of the American theatres where the play was staged.

Matthew’s death, however, also produced a more political legacy. When the attack happened in October 1998, American federal law and Wyoming state legislation had no provision to prosecute crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation – what we know today as hate crimes. The horrific nature of the assault attracted worldwide media coverage and prompted many individuals and groups to call for the law to be changed.

Over the following years, continuous efforts were made to add the specific category of “hate crime” to the statute books at both a state and federal level. All failed until finally, in October 2009, President Barack Obama signed The Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as The Matthew Shepard Act, into law.

Judy Shepard was not surprised that it took so long. “President Bush made it clear that he was never going to pass a measure like that. But Obama got it,” she says. “He understood social justice and why we needed a law like this. We are very proud of it but know it’s not perfect.”

During Obama’s two terms as President, other significant strides were made in LGBTIQ rights including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, development of the first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS strategy, the ending of the Defence Of Marriage Act, paving the way for same-sex marriage, initiating the website StopBullying.gov, which has a section on resources for LGBTIQ youth, and recognising LGBTIQ History Month.

Nothing, however, halts progress like a racist, misogynist, pussy-grabbing homophobe. Despite Donald Trump holding up a Pride flag at a campaign function during the 2016 Republican convention, his first two years in office have seen an assault on civil rights. This is fuelled, partly, by his obsession to overturn everything Obama accomplished.

His administration has attempted to restore a ban on trans people entering and openly serving in the armed forces, quashed a memo that specified trans workers are protected under civil rights law, allowing the federal government to reason in court that antitrans discrimination isn’t prohibited under federal law, and appointing anti-LGBTIQ Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Judy Shepard describes these attacks on LGBTIQ rights as “maddening and frightening” and fears they are set to continue at an even faster pace. Vice President, Mike Pence, has opined that marriage equality will lead to “societal collapse”; the Secretary Of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, associated homosexuality with bestiality; and Secretary Of State, Mike Pompeo, thinks gay sex is a “perversion”.

The anti-gay policies and language emanating from Trump’s administration have legitimised those who want to attack our community. “People who were private about their hatred now feel emboldened to be public about it. It’s like squeezing toothpaste out of the tube. It’s incredibly difficult to shove it back in once it’s out,” says Judy.

Gay hate crimes have increased significantly since the current president took office. Academic journal, The Conversation, quotes figures showing that in 2017, general hate crimes rose 12 per cent in more than 35 of American’s biggest cities. Roughly 17.5 per cent of incidents can be expected to be LGBTIQ cases, according to FBI statistics. The National Coalition Of Anti-Violence Programs reports a rise of over 80 per cent in LGBTIQ murders in the USA when comparing the 2017 and 2016 figures.

The rolling back of LGBTIQ rights and spiking hate crimes are, of course, a bitter pill for Judy Shepard. Did her boy die in vain?

But, now a seasoned activist, she remains pragmatic. She suspects the current figures are not accurate as many LGBTIQ victims are fearful of reporting violence.

“For the same reason that many individuals are afraid to report sexual assault, people don’t report the hate crimes [they experience].

Sometimes they don’t know if what they experienced counts as one. Sometimes they are afraid of being re-victimized by the police.

And on other occasions they live in a state where, if you are outed, you could be fired from your job. Education needs to happen for both law enforcement and victims and it needs to happen quickly,” she says.

Matthew Shepard’s life was taken from him savagely and with malice. His name is now synonymous with the brutality of small-town homophobia and religious bigotry. But his legacy is the Foundation in his name, the existence of national hate crimes legislation in the United States, and the similar laws adopted by other countries around the world.

His death has turned his mother into a warrior for social justice, on a mission to help save someone else’s son.

MORE: Find out more about The Matthew Shepard Foundation at matthewshepard.org


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