Matthew Shepard: The Murder that Started a Cultural Revolution


(Warning: this article contains graphic details some readers may find disturbing.)

The year 1998 brought with it a cultural revolution. Shows such as “Friends” and “Ellen” had already been normalizing homosexuality for years, but that year in September, the popular gay sitcom “Will & Grace” would air for the first time. Social change was running rampant in America, but many corners of the country were resistant to accept it. Only a week after “Will & Grace” aired, a group of University of Wyoming students met up to plan for LGBTQ+ awareness week at their school. After the meeting, one of the students, Matthew Shepard, decided to go down to the local dive bar in Laramie, Wyoming—alone. There, two strangers held a conversation with Shepard and pretended to be gay in order to gain his confidence. After a while, they offered him a ride home and he accepted. During the car ride, these men robbed Shepard and drove him out to a secluded area where they tortured, beat, and pistol-whipped him 19 to 21 times in the head with a .357 magnum hand cannon, causing severe damage to the brain stem. He was found by cyclist Aaron Kreifels 18 hours later tied to a post and left to die. Kreifels called the authorities, but unfortunately he was too late. Matthew Shepard died after six days on October 12, 1998, at Poudre valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, at the age of 21.

Following his death, the two perpetrators were captured and convicted, and they are currently serving consecutive life terms. After grieving for his loss, Shepard’s mother, inspired by her son’s courage, has worked tirelessly to improve LGBTQ+ life in America. She created the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which provides a voice to struggling LGBTQ+ youth. She also lobbied congress to pass the Matthew Shepard Act, which established commiting a crime against someone due to their sexual orientation as a hate crime. Unfortunately, this law wasn’t passed until October 22, 2009 because it failed under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. But even with this progress, along with other milestones such as the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case, there is still much work that needs to be done. According to the Human Rights Campaign, there are 20 states that don’t expressly cover a victim’s sexual orientation as a hate crime, including Wyoming where Shepard was murdered. On top of that, there are 29 states that allow LGBT people to be fired on account of their sexual orientation.

Shepard’s family kept his ashes until he was buried on October 26, 2018, at Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC, alongside American heroes Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson. Many of his belongings can be found on display at Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Photo: Matthew Shepard Foundation

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