20 years after his tragic death, we look back and remember Matthew Shepard and the work done in his name

By : Jeremy Williams
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In the early evening hours of Oct. 7, 1998, a cyclist was heading down a desolate, dirt road outside of the town of Laramie, Wyo. when he passed by something hanging from a fence. The cyclist initially thought, with it being so close to Halloween, that it was a scarecrow decoration. The “scarecrow” turned out to be the beaten and broken body of 21-year-old, openly-gay college student Matthew Shepard. He was barely breathing. His face was completely covered in his own blood, sans a strip down each side of his face where his tears washed the blood and dirt clean.

This was the introduction of the heinous attack to police, and eventually Shepard ‘s friends and family, the media and the world. The attack was felt firsthand by Shepard 18 hours prior after meeting two men in their early 20s at the Fireside Lounge, a bar in Laramie.

Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson offered to give Shepard a ride home after leaving the bar. Instead of taking him home, McKinney and Henderson drove to the outskirts of town where they pistol-whipped, beat and tortured Shepard. After fracturing his skull, damaging his brainstem and beating him to near death; McKinney and Henderson stole Shepard ‘s wallet and shoes, tied him to a buck and rail fence and headed back into town. They left Shepard in freezing temperatures, alone in the dark.

Jason Marsden, the current executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, was a reporter at the time for the Casper Star-Tribune. He was also Shepard ‘s friend. Marsden was in the newsroom when he found out what happened.

Jason Marsden, Matthew Shepard Foundation Executive Director

“There was a little bit of commotion from a few of the editorial staff over at the fax machine, I peripherally noticed that, and there was a little conversation at the editor’s table,” Marsden recalls. “Not much later, 10-15 minutes maybe, one of the editors tapped me on the shoulder.”

In a conference room, Marsden’s editor slid a press release from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office across the table to him.

“There was some annotation on it, some handwriting. They tell me there’s been a really gruesome assault outside of Laramie, and the Sheriff released that they are looking into it as potentially an anti-gay hate crime,” Marsden says. “I remember [my managing editor] asking me if I knew Matthew Shepard.”

Marsden first met Shepard at a mutual friend’s birthday party in Casper, Wyo. about a year before.

“He spotted me when I came into this party in one of those little apartments that college kids live in, and I saw him notice me and watched him work his way over and say, ‘You’re Jason Marsden from the Casper Star-Tribune, aren’t you?’ You never know where these things are going to go when you work for a small town paper. He said, ‘Let me ask you, why isn’t there anything in the paper about what’s been going on in Afghanistan?'”

Shepard wasn’t a large man. He stood at 5’2″ and weighed barely 100 pounds, but he had a personality that filled a room, says Marsden. He describes Shepard as “terribly bright,” a “loyal friend” and a “good listener.”

Marsden and Shepard became friends, speaking mostly about politics and current affairs when they would see each other at events and parties.

“I saw him last about six weeks before he was killed and he was beside himself about Newt Gingrich, the [Bill Clinton] impeachment, the Kenneth Star investigation; all that stuff,” Marsden says. “I was down in Laramie to cover a story and I remember thinking, ‘It’d be nice the next time I have to come down here for some government meeting to cover, that there will be someone here I know that I can have dinner with. I never saw him again after that evening.”

Marsden wasn’t sure how to respond when he got the news of Shepard’s attack. He recalls sitting in the newsroom, a sinking feeling in his stomach and not knowing what to do next.

“They told me if I needed to go home to feel free. Come back if you want, you’re not going to be expected to cover your friend being attacked,” Marsden says.

Marsden, who had no cable TV or internet in his apartment, wanted to be right there in the newsroom to stay abreast of what was going on.

“I figured I could help other reporters connect with friends of Matt’s or other people in the LGBT community down in Southeastern Wyoming that I knew, and help do some copy editing,” he says. “I remember someone turned in a piece of copy that had said something about Matthew Shepard, ‘a gay,’ and I was like, ‘No, see you wouldn’t say it that way,’ although you would probably say ‘a lesbian,’ you’d say an ‘openly-gay student’ or something like that.”

Hate crimes were happening across the country at this point, but something struck a chord with people after Shepard’s attack. The national media was taking an interest, a reporter even asked President Clinton about it during a news conference.

“I remember the satellite trucks started to show up and the network correspondents,” Marsden says. “That Sunday edition of the New York Times featured Matt’s story. A guy from the [British Broadcasting Corporation] came to the newsroom and wanted to know if he could use our lines and some photojournalists showed up asking to use our darkroom.”

Media from around the world had set up in Casper, in Laramie and in Fort Collins, Colo. where Shepard was on life support. McKinney and Henderson were picked up, found with Shepard’s credit card and ID and were charged with attempted murder. Shepard’s parents were broadcast going in and out of the hospital and giving press conferences on his status.

The entire world watched when Shepard, after midnight on Oct. 12, 1998 and just six days after being tied to that fence, was pronounced dead.

“When Matt died, I came into the newsroom pretty upset about it and gave some thought to what I would want to tell people,” Marsden says. “I settled on Matt the person would be very quickly lost to Matt the symbol, and I wanted to give people a better sense of what he was like as a person — his interests, his personality, his hopes. In doing so, I thought it would be disingenuous if I didn’t come out of the closet myself. I wasn’t deeply closeted but I wasn’t out to everybody in my life either.”

Marsden publicly came out in a column that first ran in the Casper Star-Tribune, but was then picked up by media outlets and taken globally. It got the attention of a lot of people—and one person in particular visited Marsden at the newsroom after reading it.

“[Matthew’s mother] Judy Shepard showed up at the newsroom unannounced and asked if she could talk to me,” Marsden remembers. “Which in the middle of everything that was going on for their family, I was just astonished and very moved.”

Due to all the media attention, the Shepard family started receiving thousands of pieces of mail. So much in fact that a call was put out for volunteers to come to the family attorney’s law office downtown to help open and sort it into giant plastic containers.

“Letters from other parents, letters from LGBT people, letters from children or classes of children, drawings from children. Letters from politicians, clergy, Coretta Scott King,” Marsden says. “So after work, for an hour or so, I would go and sort through those and they gave me some emails to sort through at home. I was stacking them up in piles on an ironing board in my basement.”

Along with words of encouragement and letters offering their condolences, people from all walks of life and all corners of the world were sending money. More than $140,000 in total was received in just the first few months.

Judy and Dennis Shepard decided to use the money and create something to give their son’s memory purpose. They created the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

“They figured that this was a spontaneous act of giving by all these people who were hoping that their individual donation could be part of something bigger that could help the Shepards bring something positive out of this tragedy that now had so many people paying attention,” Marsden says.

Chad Griffin, the current president of the Human Rights Campaign, had just come out as gay around the time of Matthew Shepard’s death. He recalls seeing Judy and Dennis Shepard on television.

“They became household names,” Griffin says. “After going through the most horrific thing one can do — losing a child, and in that way — they decided they were going to be the parents of all LGBTQ people in this country. They shared messages of love and hope, and then began the march to have a federal hate crimes law.”

The Matthew Shepard Foundation’s mission is “to erase hate by replacing it with understanding, compassion and acceptance. Through local, regional and national outreach, [it] empower[s] individuals to find their voice to create change and challenge communities to identify and address hate that lives within their schools, neighborhoods and homes,” according to the organization’s website.

The foundation began efforts to get the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed.The act was named for two 1998 victims of hate crimes in the U.S. — Shepard and Byrd, a 49-year-old black man from Jasper, Texas who was tied to the back of a truck by white supremacists and dragged behind it until he was decapitated. The murder of Byrd happened four months prior to Shepard’s attack and death.

The proposed legislation looked to expand on the 1969 U.S. federal hate crimes law. Cynthia M. Deitle, the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s current programs and operations director, was an FBI agent at the time of Shepard’s murder.

Cynthia M. Deitle, Matthew Shepard Foundation Programs and Operations Director

“I was working as a civil rights agent in New York City and I remember it happening,” Deitle says of hearing about Shepard.”My first thought was ‘Oh God, we can’t help them.There’s nothing we can do to help them,’ because I knew that the FBI had no jurisdiction to investigate a hate crime if the bias motivation was sexual orientation …I remember it very distinctly and it had a profound impact on the rest of my career working in civil rights.”

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act looked to add crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability — categories not previously listed — into the federal hate crime law. It also looked to make changes to aspects of the law; including the removal of the prerequisite that a victim must be engaged in a federally protected activity, increase the federal authority to investigate hate crimes local authorities choose not to pursue, provide funding to assist state and local authorities in investigating hate crimes and require the FBI to track hate crime statistics based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“After Matt was killed was when a lot of organizations — the Human Rights Campaign, GLSEN, GLAAD — as well as several politicians started a renewed push to either create a brand new law or update an existing law, to broaden the FBI’s jurisdiction,” Deitle says. “When Senators and Congressman began hearing from Dennis and Judy, it became hard to ignore.”

The bill — which was nationally supported by the Attorneys General in 31 states, more than 200 national law enforcement organizations and by 73 percent of Americans — was introduced to Congress five times between 2001 and 2009. The first three times, which all excluded gender identity,never made it out of various House and Senate committees, but Judy Shepard and the foundation kept pushing.

“The foundation actually started very modest. It was Judy and a part-time assistant working out of an office in her basement,”  Marsden says.”She was testifying to committees and Congress about the proposed legislation… She tirelessly pressed for a long time.”

In 2007, the Shepard/Byrd Act made it through the House of Representatives by a vote of 237-180. This time, the bill’s fourth submission, was also the first to add gender identity to the list of protected classes. It never made it out of Senate committee.

Getting the Shepard/Byrd Act turned into law was proving to be extremely difficult under the George W. Bush presidency and the Republican-led Congress.

“[Bush] said after he took over office in 2000,” Deitle recalls, “that he was never going to sign it, never going to support it and he was never to going advocate for that.”

After all of the Shepards’ advocating and petitioning to Congress, Marsden recalls the moment they knew they were going to get the bill passed. “It was election night 2008,” he says. “When it was clear there would be democratic control of the federal government, I knew.”

The bill was reintroduced for a fifth time on April 2, 2009 by Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan. The bill passed the House 249-175. In the Senate, a bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, passed as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 63-28. On Oct. 28, 2009 — several weeks after the 11-year mark of Matthew Shepard’s death — President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.

(L-R) Dennis Shepard, Ms. Darcel Stevens and Judy Shepard attend the Matthew Shepard Foundation and MillerCoors’ “Stay Loud, Stay Proud” hate crimes training panel discussion in Orlando in June 2018.

Less than a year after Shepard/Byrd became law, Judy Shepard asked Marsden to be the foundation’s new executive director, and he accepted.

Now that they had managed to get a federal hate crimes law to include sexual orientation and gender identity, what specifically did that mean?

“[The law] is very narrowly constrained,” Marsden says. “It only applies to violent capital felonies: first degree murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, attempted kidnapping; so the vast majority of hate crimes are not covered.”

Deitle adds, “Basically what it does is allow the FBI to investigate violence. It doesn’t cover threats, but actual violence against a human being because of that person’s sexual orientation and gender identity,as long as there’s some aspect or some involvement in interstate commerce.”

Deitle gives the example of an attacker striking their victim with a baseball bat while screaming anti-gay epithets in Miami. Is there violence? Yes. Is it because the victim is, or perceived to be, gay? Yes. Is there interstate commerce? Yes, because the baseball bat — which is made in Louisville, Ky. — traveled to Miami.

While Deitle thinks the law would be much more effective with the deletion of the interstate commerce clause and by adding that “street violence against LGBT individuals would violate federal law,” the major push she would like is mandatory reporting of hate crimes by all law enforcement.

“Our push to amend the law is to tell all 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country that you must obtain and report your hate crime data to the FBI’s uniform crime report. As of now it’s voluntary. You don’t have to report your data if you don’t want to,” Deitle says.

Having a federal hate crime law in the U.S. is historic, but we need them at the state and local levels as well if we are going to combat all hate crimes, says Griffin.

Currently, 45 states and D.C. have some form of hate crime laws on the books. States without a hate crime law include Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and the state where Matthew Shepard was murdered, Wyoming.

Of those 45 states, 31 cover sexual orientation and 17 cover gender identity. Florida only covers sexual orientation, which was added to the state’s hate crime statute in 1991, the same year the FBI started keeping track of hate crime numbers.

“Since the feds began tracking hate crimes, they have documented a long, slow steady decline,” says Marsden, “until the last two years when reports have gone up.”

According to the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics, more than 7,600 victims of hate crimes were reported to the bureau in 2016, the latest available figures. That puts the total up nearly 12 percent from 2014, the lowest number of incidents since national reporting began in 1992.

“The elephant in the room is the president of the United States and his followers,” says Marsden. “It’s very sobering how quickly this mechanism has gone into reverse after having taken so long to make incremental progress.”

Of the reported hate crimes in 2016, about one in five hate crime incidents were against someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, accounting for nearly 1,300 hate crime victims. That is up 10 percent from 2014, the lowest number of sexual orientation- or gender identity-related incidents since national reporting started.

“Matthew’s death galvanized, not just this country, but the world’s attention on the hate and the animus focused at the LGBTQ community,” says Griffin. “It made folks start answering the question why? Those people weren’t born to hate. Those people weren’t born with a mission to go out and murder a young, innocent gay person with a bright future. Those folks who are murdering transgender people in this state and across this country weren’t born to hate transgender people, weren’t born with a mission to kill. They were taught that by a society, they were taught that by a person and they have been taught over time that some people are less than. I think Matthew’s death really started raising that question, and without question, led to some societal changes in this country and led to changes in our laws. Where we are today, we know we have a long, long way to go.”

While the recent increase in hate crimes appears to be a step in the wrong direction, according to Deitle, not all hope is lost.

“Matthew’s death created an unstoppable force for change and acceptance in our world,” she says.”He created this army of people that will not stop until diversity, acceptance, inclusion, peacefulness, nonviolence; until all of those principles are implemented into our everyday existence. That is his legacy, and I can’t think of anyone who has created a force like he did over the last 20 years.”

Marsden says the biggest thing that can be done to help stop hate in this country is for everyone to act.

“Government, Wall Street, Hollywood — they all put on quite a show but the institutions in this country are not going to fix this problem,” he says. “If 300 million-plus Americans woke up tomorrow and said ‘we have had it with hatred,’whenever they see it, wherever they see it.If everyone said, ‘I’m going to challenge it. I am going to eliminate it from my vocabulary and my behavior. I am going to try and influence everyone around me to do the same thing.’ If that happened, then we could give these lovely people, Judy and Dennis, the retirement that they deserve. The Shepards’ great goal in all of this has been to be able to put the foundation out of business with a clear conscience.”

ABOVE: Photos from the Matthew Shepard Foundation and MillerCoors’ “Stay Loud, Stay Proud” hate crimes training panel discussion in Orlando in June 2018.

All photos courtesy Matthew Shepard Foundation.

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