Wyoming is a magnificent state with vast areas of unspoiled plains framed by stunning, brilliantly colored mountain ranges. In high altitudes, summers can be chilly in the evenings and winters see temperatures drop to bitterly frigid levels. Away from the highways, the back country is dark and void of human activity at night.
That seems like a terrifyingly lonesome place for an injured young man to die, but that’s effectively what happened to 21-year-old Matthew Shepard twenty years ago next month. A cyclist found him the next day outside of Laramie, tied to one of the split-rail fences that stretch endlessly along pastures across the state. After hours of exposure, near death and with his face covered in a mask of blood stained by tears, Shepard looked like a “scarecrow,” according to his rescuer. Shepard died in a coma from brain injuries on October 12, 1998, after six days on life support.
The openly gay University of Wyoming student became the face of LGBTQ hate-crime prevention following his horrific murder by the two men he met in a bar and befriended.
The City of Laramie and the University of Wyoming are commemorating the anniversary of Shepard’s death with a series of events that began in September. The observance will include a performance of “Considering Matthew Shepard” by the Grammy-winning choral group Conspirare at Laramie High School Theater on October 6—the anniversary of the day Shepard was found barely alive.
In announcing the plans, Laramie mayor Andi Summerville said the international attention drawn to Laramie in the wake of Shepard’s death “rocked this community, absolutely to its fundamental core.”
During the prosecutions of the two men on murder charges, the world learned that the killers pretended to be gay in order to rob Shepard. After enticing him to leave the bar with them, they pistol-whipped him, stole his cash and credit cards, and left him to die.
While the commemoration of Shepard’s horrific death will not soften the hearts of hateful Americans, maybe it will kindle another movement to help drown out the voices of Trump and his supporters.
As Southern Poverty Law Center president Richard Cohen notes, Shepard’s death focused national attention on the reality of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes. His organization is the preeminent chronicler of hate crimes and hate groups in the U.S.
“Just as the murder of Emmett Till awakened America to the reality of racial violence, so the murder of Matthew Shepard awakened our country to the reality of violence against the LGBTQ community,” Cohen says. Emmett Till was the black youth who was mutilated and tossed in a river in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly insulting a white woman.
Like Till (whose death sparked outrage among blacks and sympathetic whites and precipitated the Montgomery bus boycott), Shepard’s death inspired a revolution in attitudes toward anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence. Similarly, Shepard posthumously became an icon, and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Act was signed into law by President Obama in 2009. Byrd was the black man who was killed by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, also in 1998.
The 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death comes amidst a marked increase in reported hate crimes across the country over the last few years. When the FBI releases its statistics for 2017, another increase in hate crimes is expected, according to organizations researching and analyzing the activity. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, predicts that the new FBI report will reveal disturbing news about a resurgence of violence in the nation’s biggest cities, including Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio.
“Our investigation found that hate crime totals for the 10 largest cities rose for four straight years to the highest level in a decade,” according to criminologist Brian Levin, who supervised the Center’s May 2018 report.
The Center also identified the most common hate-crime categories in its analysis as anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-Latino.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is also seeing an increase in the number of active white-supremacist groups. Experts agree that there appears to be a correlation between President Trump’s bombastic rhetoric belittling minorities before and after his election and the growth of hate propaganda and violence. A spike in hate crimes, especially targeting Muslims, was seen about the time of the 2016 election and thought to be inspired by Trump’s campaign.
It is unlikely that anything or anyone can deter Trump from his daily routine of invective meant to satisfy his archconservative base. After all, in the wake of Shepard’s death, protesters from the hate group at Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas picketed his funeral with signs reading “Matt in Hell” and “God Hates Fags.”
While the commemoration of Shepard’s horrific death will not soften the hearts of hateful Americans, maybe it will kindle another movement to help drown out the voices of Trump and his supporters. Ultimately, it will probably require either voting Trump out of office or impeaching him to reverse the destructive path that the nation seems to be following—all the more reason to make a commitment to voting in every election so that your voice will be heard.
This article appears in the October 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.