Matthew Shepard: Story & Foundation

Instructor: Robin Harley

Robin has a PhD in health psychology. She has taught undergraduate and graduate psychology, health science, and health education.

In this lesson, we will look at the story of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was murdered by two men he met in a bar on October 6th, 1998. Because Matthew was gay, his murder was considered a hate crime and became the subject of controversy. We will also discuss Matthew's legacy, particularly the inclusion of sexual orientation in hate crime law and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Matthew Shepard's Story

Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, decided to go out for a drink at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie on the evening of October 6th, 1998. As a gay man, this was one of the few bars in town where he felt like he could be himself.

About an hour after his arrival, he met two men: Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. They told Matthew that they, too, were gay, with the intention of gaining his trust so they could later rob him. They offered him a ride home, but instead drove him to a rural area, taking his wallet and assaulting him along the way. When they reached the end of the road, they tied him to a wooden fence, and tortured and beat him with the butt of a pistol until he fell into a coma. They left him tied to the fence, bleeding profusely from his head wounds.

There he stayed for eighteen hours, until a young man discovered him while riding his mountain bike. Matthew was taken to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, and was then transferred to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he remained on life support until his death on October 12th. Candlelight vigils were held around the world in his memory.

The day after he was found, his murderers were arrested. Henderson and McKinney claimed that they had only intended to rob Matthew. McKinney claimed that Matthew had made a sexual advance toward him, sending him into a violent rage. McKinney was found guilty of felony murder, and Henderson pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder. Both were sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison. Their girlfriends, Kristen Price and Chastity Pasley, were charged as accessories for creating alibis and concealing evidence. Price later received a reduced charge of misdemeanor interference.

The Matthew Shepard & James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act

There was a great deal of controversy about whether Matthew was targeted because he was gay. His killers and their lawyers insisted that this was not a hate crime. In fact, before this point, there was no existing legislation against hate crimes based on sexual orientation in Wyoming or the U.S. However, people around the world were horrified by the nature of this crime, and rallied together in support of new legislation. Several failed attempts were made at the state and federal levels to pass hate crime legislation that included sexual orientation.

Finally, eleven years after Matthew's murder, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, into law in 2009. (James Byrd, Jr. was an African-American man who was murdered by white supremacists in 1998). This law expanded upon existing hate crime law by criminalizing bodily injury committed on the basis of sexual orientation, race, gender, gender identity, disability, or religion.

Despite the law, students supporting gay rights and gay advocacy groups were facing opposition from those who argued against the murder's hate crime status. Many believed that drugs were more of a motivation for the violence than sexual orientation. The Westboro Baptist Church became involved, and picketed Matthew's funeral with homophobic signs. The controversy of this case continues today, but Matthew Shepard's death and legacy have changed the way we talk about and view LGBTQ rights and hate crimes in this country. Let's take a look at an organization that continues to support Matthew's cause.

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