Readers have seen examples of my interest and my struggle with the way we convey the darker sides of our history (see post on the powerful lynching museum in Alabama and the pathetic memorial at Wounded Knee). I’ve always believed that we must face our demons no matter how painful. When our family traveled to Cambodia to visit the glories of Angkor Wat and the beautiful capital of Phnom Penh, I insisted we go to the killing fields and walk through buildings where horrific torture took place. I don’t do so to cast blame since evil resides in all of us. but I have a profound need to acknowledge that fact, to take time to reflect upon what transpired, and to commemorate those that suffered.
As I approached Laramie, Wyoming, I decided to stop to commemorate Matthew Shepard. Most of you will remember his tragic death two decades ago.
On October 6, 1998, Matthew Wayne Shepard met Aaron McKinney, and Russell Henderson, both of Laramie, in a local bar. Contemplating robbery, the two led Shepard to believe they were gay. Matthew followed McKinney and Henderson into their truck. Inside the truck, McKinney pulled out a gun and demanded Shepard’s wallet, then hit him with the gun repeatedly as Matthew begged for his life. They drove to a remote location, tied Shepard’s beaten body to a fence, and left him to die.
For over 18 hours Shepard bled profusely in near-freezing temperatures until a cyclist happened to discover him the following day. A police officer who responded to the 911 call would later testify, “Though his face was caked in blood, his face was clean where streaks of tears had washed the blood away.”
The 5-foot-2-inch, 102-pound Shepard never emerged from his coma and died five days later. He was 21 years old.
Due to the defendants’ testimony describing the crime and their attorney’s reliance on a “gay panic defense” (the judge and jury rejected that defense and the defendants received extended sentences and remain in prison), Matthew became a poster child for the LGBTQ community and those advocating for an expansion of hate crime legislation. It took a decade but the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law in October 2009. (Many of you will remember that James Byrd was an African American man who was tied to a truck by two white supremacists, dragged behind it, and decapitated in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. If any of you have gone to Jasper, I’d appreciate learning what memorial, if any, exists there for James Byrd.)
What shocked me was that Laramie was virtually devoid of any true acknowledgment of what had transpired. On the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie, there is a bench with a plaque that says “Matthew Wayne Shepard December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998. Beloved son, brother, and friend. He continues to make a difference. Peace be with him and all who sit here.” They are worthy sentiments but grossly inadequate for any of us to remember, to commemorate, or to learn.
While the street names have been changed and there is no marker or memorial of any type beyond a private road sign designed to dissuade those who feel compelled to make this pilgrimage and complete the detective work to find it, I went to the location where Matthew perished. It didn’t offer any epiphanies, but it felt right to offer a moment of silence at that spot.