You’ve probably heard his name before. What image does it conjure for you? A brutal hate crime? A martyr? And if you have not heard his name till now, I’m sure that you have heard stories all too similar to his because there are far too many of them. Matthew’s is not the first, nor is it the last.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left for dead. He died on October 12th 1998, 21 years ago. (As of this writing, October 2019).
While I want to discuss his death and the consequences of it, I also want to take a moment to honor his life.
His friends and family spoke fondly of him. They didn’t call him Matthew, they called him Matt, and according the Romaine Patterson in The Laramie Project, Mattchew, or Choo-Choo. He was passionate about politics, had a big heart and a warm smile. He had braces on his teeth until his death. He was five foot two inches tall and described as ”90 pounds soaking wet,” with bright blue eyes and golden colored hair. He was going to college and recovering from trauma. He had been sexually assaulted on a high school trip abroad. His mother, Judy Shepard, has said that he had finally begun to put himself back together after the attack and the depression that followed. He was beautiful, complicated, flawed, and loved, as all human beings are.
And he was gay. On October 6th, 1998, two young men convinced him to leave the Fireside Lounge bar in Laramie Wyoming, and get into their car. They were much taller than him, practically a foot, and they knew that he was gay and vulnerable.
I hesitate to describe what happened that night because I do not want to romanticize it, have it appear as if I am replaying it for shock value, or trigger anyone. At the same time, I think that it is important to discuss the horrors he went through because of his sexual orientation.
Matthew was driven out to an empty field and savagely beaten with the butt of a pistol. He was hit 19 to 21 times and left with several severe fractures on his skull. The trauma impacted his body’s ability to regulate it’s own breathing. He was tied to a fence and left to die in the cold Wyoming winter. He was found 18 hours later by a cyclist, who initially mistook him for a scarecrow.
The sheriff who arrived on the scene, Reggie Fluty, thought he was much younger than his actual age of 21 because of his small stature. She attempted to clear his airway and revive him, all while comforting him.
Matt would later die in the hospital, almost a week after his brutal attack. Months later, the world would see the Columbine massacre and the horrible murder of James Byrd JR. All three events would have a large impact on laws and hearts in the United States of America.
Matthew’s effect was evident while he was in the hospital and after his death. Thousands of people, celebrities like talk show host Ellen, stood vigil for Matt.
In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd JR Hate Crime prevention act would be signed into law, finally allowing the legal system to peruse cases like these as what they are: Hate crimes. Matt’s death also changed hearts, like Albany County Sheriff O’Malley, who admitted to previous homophobic behavior, until he began working on this case.
While Matthew’s death may have changed the world for the better, it is important to remember that 21 years ago, (Matthew’s entire lifetime) his killers targeted him because he was vulnerable, and because he was gay. For that, he was given four brain fractures and crushed brain stem. He died a few months shy of his 22nd birthday and he would never get to see the progress that has been made in LGTBTQ rights. He did not ask to be a martyr.
While you listen to the elegant words his father spoke in the courtroom as his witness impact statement, in a courtroom two decades ago, remember that Matt may be a symbol, but he is not the first, or the last, to die because of someone else’s hate.