Shortly after midnight (12:00 AM) on this date, two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, having led 21-year old college student Matthew Wayne Shepard to a remote area east of Laramie, Wyoming, tied him to a buck fence and brutally beat him and then abandoned him in the cold of the night. They later admitted that they had targeted him because he was gay. Still tied to the fence almost 18 hours after the horrific beating, Matthew was discovered by Aaron Kreifels, who initially mistook him for a scarecrow. At the time of discovery, Matthew was still alive in a coma.
Matthew had suffered fractures to the back of his head and in front of his right ear. He had severe brain stem damage, which affected his body’s ability to regulate heart rate, body temperature, and other vital functions. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face, and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. Matthew never regained consciousness and remained on full life support until he died on October 12 at 12:53 AM at a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. His entire family was by his side for the last few days of his life. His funeral was attended by friends and family from around the world and gained the appropriate media attention that brought Matthew’s story to the forefront of the fight against hate.
In response to Matthew’s murder, many gay people, especially youth, reported going back into the closet, fearing for their safety, experiencing a strong sense of self-loathing, and upset that the same thing could happen to them because of their sexual orientation. The reaction to his murder underscores the fact that, from a psychological perspective, hate crimes are worse than regular crimes without a prejudiced motivation. The time it takes to mentally recover from a hate crime is substantially longer than it is for a regular crime, and gay people often feel as if they are being punished for their sexuality, leading to higher incidence of depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder.
Matthew was not a martyr. He was a victim of homophobia.
Ironically, yesterday was the anniversary of another tragedy that occurred at Laramie, Wyoming. On October 6, 1955, a jetliner slammed into a nearby mountain peak killing everyone on board, at that time the deadliest accident in U.S. commercial aviation history. Some say the pilot became disoriented in the clouds. Now that the crash site is more than 50 years old, it is federally protected and no one may legally remove pieces of the wreckage. On August 25, 2001, a memorial plaque was dedicated nearby, which reads “In memory of the 66 passengers and crew that perished on Medicine Bow Peak October 6, 1955.” The aftermath of the crash gave birth to new laws for aeronautical safety and new technologies for improved navigation.
In 2009, after repeated obstruction over the years by homophobic politicians like Senator Jesse Helms (who died in 2008), the federal hate crime law was finally expanded by passage of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. However, unlike the crash of the jetliner in 1955, NO memorial of any kind has been established to mark where Matthew was beaten and left to die. In fact, the names of the nearby roads were changed in an effort to make the location more difficult to find. Even the fence at the site has been removed by the landowner.
It seems this is one tragedy Laramie would like to forget …
- Monique Noelle, “The ripple effect of the Matthew Shepard murder: Impact on the assumptive worlds of members of the targeted group,” American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 27-50 (2002).