Remembering Matthew Shepard’s Legacy in His Own Backyard
In this small town of Laramie, what you say matters. It gets around. The only way to combat the misinformation is to keep telling the truth.
On the twentieth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, I stood in front of a classroom of University of Wyoming freshmen and asked, “How many of you have heard of Matt Shepard?”
Two or three people raised their hands. Some made a screwing motion with their hands to express an uncertain “sort-of.” Others remained silent.
I was shocked. When I tell people I go to UW, one of the top questions I get is, “Isn’t that where that gay student was murdered?” To which I respond, head folded in shame, yes. Yes, it is.
I thought Matt Shepard’s murder and legacy were well-known and documented for everyone, especially those attending college in a place that has become nationally known for said murder. But that day, in my classroom, that didn’t seem to be the case.
On Tuesday, October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one-year-old University of Wyoming student, went to Fireside Lounge—a bar that has since become Mingles Lounge, a popular spot of bacchanalia for UW undergrads. He sat alone at the bar, drinking a bottle of beer, until he was approached by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, two high school dropouts who worked roofing jobs.
Shortly after midnight, Matt left the bar with McKinney and Henderson. The two men lured Matt under the pretense of being gay themselves, according to police statements, with the intent of robbing him. They drove Matt to a remote area in the Sherman Hills development, a few miles east of Laramie. The two men began punching and pistol-whipping Matt in the car and continued the assault at a buck-rail fence.
According to the later investigations and an autopsy, Matt was struck nineteen to twenty-one times in the head with the butt of a .357-caliber Magnum Smith & Wesson pistol, the final blow of which irreparably damaged his brain stem.
Henderson then bound Matt’s wrists with white clothesline and the two men left Matt tied to the fence, unconscious. They took his wallet, identification, and shoes, then drove back to Laramie.
Matt was tied to the fence for eighteen hours. It was freezing cold. He was found unconscious the next morning by a mountain biker who initially thought he was just a fallen scarecrow. He was rushed to the hospital, where it was determined that his injuries included four skull fractures and a crushed brain stem.
He died five days later.
All of a sudden, the spotlight turned to Laramie, a place previously content to exist in sleepy insulation. As news of Matt’s murder spread nationally, activists and communities banded together to find peace, love, and support. Thousands, including members of Congress and celebrities of the day, gathered at the US Capitol to condemn the hate crime and urge passage of a hate-crimes bill. “The people of my state and the University of Wyoming want you to know this is not who we are,” the Wyoming senator Alan K. Simpson, a Republican, said.
On a local scale, the Wyoming state legislature introduced a bill that defined certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes. The measure failed on a 30–30 tie in the Wyoming House of Representatives. On the national level, President Bill Clinton renewed attempts to extend federal hate crime legislation to include gay people, women, and people with disabilities, an effort that would continue to fail under President George W. Bush.
It wasn’t until 2009 that President Obama would sign the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act—also named for a black man killed by three white supremacists in Texas. At the Human Rights Campaign’s National Dinner that year, Lady Gaga performed her rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” where she replaced the lyrics to include Matt:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
And only Matthew in the sky
Matt’s story has become a bastion of hope, justice, and activism, as seen by his prevalence in popular culture and media. Books, movies, plays, and documentaries like The Laramie Project, The Matthew Shepard Story, and Matthew Shepard Is a Friend of Mine demand to keep him in conversation. Richie Hofmann’s 2016 poem about Matt titled “Book of Statues” was later recited by actor Matt Bomer in a video for The New York Times in 2018:
…In the west,
they are tying a boy to a fence and leaving him to die,
his face unrecognizable behind a mask
of blood. His body, icon
of loss, growing meaningful
against his will.
Matt’s name and story have become attached to the complicated idea of what it means to have a “legacy.” But whatever that legacy is on a national scale, it seems to have taken on a different life in Laramie, the very town where he grew up and was murdered.
October 2018 marked the twentieth anniversary of Matt’s death. It was a huge deal on campus and in Laramie at large, with memorial events starting as early as September. The Matthew Shepard Memorial Group sponsored events of remembrance and discussion, including an LGBTQ reception held by the university’s president; screenings of The Laramie Project and Matthew Shepard Was a Friend of Mine; a performance called “Considering Matthew Shepard” by Grammy-winning choral ensemble Conspirare; and a candlelight vigil.
You couldn’t go anywhere on campus without seeing the yellow and green banners emblazoned with “20 Years Matthew Shepard: A Legacy of Compassion, Community, and Hope.” They were a shock of color against the tan brick science and engineering buildings.
Students and faculty members prepared to talk about Matt in the classroom. English lecturer and LeaRN director April Heaney and University of Wyoming senior Jess Fahlsing created a committee to advise faculty on teaching Matt’s story. This included developing resources and guides, such as readings and videos, to prepare faculty for whatever they might face in the classroom.
“We wanted faculty to know that it was a broader need to help students understand inclusion and diversity,” said Heaney. “We also had a huge wealth of resources for students, because talking about Matt can lead them to confront their own identities.”
In the English and Creative Writing departments, we graduate assistants were given optional essays to teach to our students in rhetoric and composition classes. Most of our students were eighteen and nineteen-year-olds and Laramie, a town of about 30,000, was the biggest place they’ve ever been in. They came from Cody and Riverton and Evanston. They came from faraway places like Green River and Saratoga and Pinedale. Laramie, for all they’ve known, felt like a city.
These students were the ones who didn’t take AP English. They were engineering and computer science and agricultural and applied economics majors who left English as a thing to cross off a checklist of degree requirements. For many of them, the pen wasn’t mightier than the sword; the pen wasn’t even part of the equation.
In my class, the day’s lesson plan was simple: read one of the essays, which analyzed the differences between two film adaptations of the story—The Laramie Project and Matthew Shepard Was a Friend of Mine—and discuss.
“Those of you who are from Wyoming,” I asked them. “Have you heard of Matthew Shepard before? What do you know about him?”
One student shrugged and said, “Just that he was murdered.”
I was prepared for protests, anger, and anguish. I wasn’t prepared for disinterest.
My fellow instructors had more disturbing experiences in the classroom. Some of their students claimed that Matt had been a drug dealer and the murder was a result of a drug deal gone wrong, rather than a hate crime.
“That’s bogus,” one of my friends said to his student. “Absolute bogus. Where did you get that from?”
“My dad,” the student said.
These students are referring to a 2013 book by investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez titled The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard. In the book, Jimenez claims that Matt’s murder was fueled by crystal meth, rather than homophobia. Jimenez, himself a gay man, has stated that he wrote this book to paint a fuller picture of Matt.
The book, which the Matthew Shepard Foundation called “a conspiracy theory,” has been criticized for sloppy journalism and pure conjecture. Many of Jimenez’s sources, for example, are anonymous and quotes appear without context, cherry-picked to fit Jimenez’s narrative. In the introduction, Jimenez himself confesses to fictionalizing some conversations for the sake of the narrative:
“Though this is a work of nonfiction journalism, I have occasionally employed methods that are slightly less stringent to re-create the dialogue of characters—words I did not personally hear; nor could the characters themselves recall every word exactly from memory. But my intention throughout has been to remain faithful to the actual characters and events as they really happened.”
Furthermore, Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley, who worked on the case, has come out in staunch condemnation of the book’s allegations, calling The Book of Matt a “Book of Lies.”
Despite criticisms of Jimenez’s weak theories and dubious evidence, The Book of Matt has its followers and believers. In many ways, it has offered itself as a scapegoat—a way for people to deny the existence of homophobia and hate-fueled crimes in their Laramie, in their Wyoming.
Fun fact: Wyoming’s official state nickname is “The Equality State,” which it got for being the first state to let women vote. But today it only has ten women in its legislature, the least of any state. It also is one of just five states—including Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, and South Carolina—that have refused to pass laws focused on crimes motivated by the victim’s identity, such as their sexual orientation. Furthermore, Laramie did not pass an ordinance barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity until 2015. The University of Wyoming created its Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion only just last year. Oh, and the state still doesn’t recognize hate crimes.
Once you’ve lived in Laramie long enough, you start calling it “Laradise.” It’s at once an ironic and deeply sincere nickname. “Another day in Laradise!” someone will say as they bat snow off their windshield. “Good ol’ Laradise,” you’ll hear as the wind blows shopping carts around the Safeway parking lot. At the same time, there’s a warmth and closeness to this community that does make it a special, familiar sort of midwestern magic land. You can’t go anywhere without recognizing someone and starting a conversation. Laramie prides itself on being a cozy and quaint town, a place that operates within Wyoming’s larger ethos of “live and let live.”
But Matt did not live. Matt died, a victim of a heinous crime fueled by hate in a state that refuses to even call it that. And as the popularity of Jimenez’ book showed, there remains an ugly side to Laradise, the side that would rather accept a poorly-sourced, oft-refuted drug narrative than admit someone could be killed in this state because of their sexual orientation.
“This narrative can be summed up by an acronym. NIMBY: Not In My BackYard,” said Jim Osborn, Title IX Coordinator and one of Matt’s friends. Jim was in charge of the LGBT group on campus in 1998, which was where he met Matt. He was also one of the “angels” who wore giant robes and angel wings made out of bed sheets to block the Westboro Baptist Church protesters at Matt’s funeral.
Osborn said, “Most people don’t want to believe that hate and violence exist in their community.” In the play-turned-documentary, The Laramie Project, Zubaida Ula, who was a student at the university when Matt was killed, said the same thing: “People don’t want to believe we grow kids like that here, but we did.”
I thought of our eighteen-year-old students, the majority of whom hadn’t even heard of Matt Shepard. I thought about the students who believed he had been a drug dealer. So many of those students came from rural places, citing their fathers as definitive truth-tellers. When we ask how ignorance and bigotry get passed down, I can’t help but also think of how dangerous this kind of oral tradition becomes, especially in a place as isolated as Laramie, in a state as unknowable as Wyoming.
“People will hear a fact that they want to believe, because they feel like it mirrors their own opinion,” said Osborn. “They pick up a ball and they run with it, and that’s how it spreads.”
And in a small town like Laramie, that can be terrifying.
The truth is, I didn’t know how to talk to my students about Matt in my classroom that day. Who was I, a Wyoming outsider and a first-time instructor, to tell them about something I barely even understood? To make things worse, my students stared back at me with silent, blank faces. I took this for disinterest. As a new teacher, the last thing I wanted to do was push my students into a topic they weren’t enthusiastic about.
“We don’t have to talk about it anymore,” I said, panicking. So, we moved on.
Looking back, I should have stayed in the moment. I underestimated my ability as a teacher and, perhaps worst of all, assumed something of my young Wyoming students. My own prejudices about them took over and, as a result, I denied them the opportunity to learn by taking the easy way out.
It shouldn’t have mattered whether or not I thought they cared. It was—and is—my job to make them care. In that sense, I failed them that day.
Afterward, disappointed with myself, I remembered that there was a candlelight vigil that Friday on campus. I sent out an email encouraging my students to attend, regardless of what they’d heard or what they believed. This is an urgent and important part of UW and Laramie’s legacy, I wrote.
I didn’t expect anyone to attend. But one student did email me back with just one line: “Thank you for sending this out.”
When I think of my favorite classrooms, they have always been safe spaces where we felt free to ask questions and seek understanding without judgment. If I could do it all over again, I would have shut the door. I wouldn’t have breezed past the topic so quickly. We’re going to sit in this discomfort, I would have said. Tell me what everything you know about Matt and tell me why you think what you know is true and then tell me why this matters.
These kids are eighteen and nineteen, worrying about what they’re going to eat for dinner and how they’re going to finish all their papers on time. They’re sleep-deprived and homesick and cold. They don’t know what they know, even less what they don’t know. They come from rural towns all over the country. But in the classroom, they are all on the same playing field. They have to become students.
Can teaching rhetoric and composition be a political act? I’m not sure. All I know is that I constantly tell my students that they have to substantiate their claims with evidence. In a way, I realize, I am telling them to not just accept what they hear as fact, but instead do the hard work of investigation. I am telling them to think critically for themselves.
Jimenez’s book and the alternative lore around Matt’s death will live on, but so will the people who are doing the work, who remind you of the facts, who attend the candlelight vigil every year. In this small town, what you say matters. It gets around. The only way to combat the misinformation is to keep telling the truth.
Remind people what happened. Remind them why. Sit on a stool at the bar and repeat the story over and over again until it becomes a part of the fabric of the town, until it is understood: This happened, here. In my own backyard.
I couldn’t do much in the classroom that day because I didn’t know how. But as a writer, I can write about it. And I now know what I want to say.