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We remember Matthew Shepard

We remember Matthew Shepard

It is exactly 20 years to the week that Matthew Shepard sadly passed away. Matthew Shepard was a 22-year-old gay college student from Laramie, Wyoming, who on 6th October 1998 was tied to a fence and beaten in one of the most brutal homophobic hate crimes the United States has ever seen. The nature of the attack was so violent that had he survived, he would have had no higher-level brain functions. On the 12th October 1998 he succumbed to his injuries and died. I was only 8 years old at the time and I didn’t hear of Matthew’s story until many years later, but it is a story that I feel everyone should hear.  

On the 6th October 1998 Matthew Shepard was out drinking in a bar when he was approached by two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Shortly after midnight, Matthew left the bar with McKinney and Henderson; the most common story is that the two men lured Matthew, under the pretence of being gay themselves, but in fact with the intent of robbing him. Matthew would end up in a vehicle with the two men where they would drive to a patch of farm land and the assault then took place. Reports indicate that the attack potentially lasted hours with the two men beating him with a combination of their bare hands and the butt of a pistol. Matthew was found the following day; eye witnesses initially believed his beaten body was a scarecrow.

After the discovery of his body came intense media coverage with the whole of America waiting to see whether Matthew would survive and a debate over hate crime legislation came to the forefront. After Matthew died his funeral would also receive international attention as the Westboro Baptist Church (the church infamous for their ‘god hates fags’ signs) made a point of protesting his funeral. The trial of McKinney and Henderson also provided new drama as the two initially faced the death penalty, but this option was taken off the table after Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard asked for the judge to show mercy to the men who showed their son so little.

Many people know this story already, the years before his death are often not discussed but Matthew had a difficult life. In the years before his death Matthew was gang raped whilst on a trip to Morocco, this experience led to him having regular panic attacks and saw him become an introvert. It is often glossed over that Matthew slipped into drug abuse and it can be speculated that this may have played apart in him contracting HIV. As is the case with any gay person in the US the 1990’s was a difficult place, there were no protections for LGBT people and homophobia was a common place occurrence.

Out of such tragedy though does come a legacy, a legacy of constant campaigning by Judy and Dennis Shepard. The death of their son prompted Judy Shepard to launch the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a charity with the purpose to fight for LGBT youth and the rights of LGBT Americans. Judy Shepard has often said that she could not allow her son to die in vein and knew that his death could be used to bring something positive to the world.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This measure expanded on existing hate crime legislation to include crimes motivated by a victims actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The Obama administration would oversee many positive changes to legislation to further equality for the LGBT community despite opposition from the homophobic Republican party.

Whilst it is sad that a person’s legacy is built upon their death more so than what they did in life the legacy of Matthew Shepard is a positive one. His family, many friends and those who never knew him but were inspired by his story have fuelled the fight for change. Matthew Shepard didn't have to die that night, no one deserves to be treated in the way that he was and for better or worse LGBT history has been shaped by that terrible event. I like to think that as terrible as that event was it helped galvanise a community to fight for rights withheld from them and if Matthew was alive to see that today I hope he would be proud of that.

By Daniel Carter.

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Published: 11-Oct-2018

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