Wyoming town reflects homophobia and hate 10 years after Shepard’s murder
October 11, 2008
LARAMIE, Wyo. ” A decade after a gay college student was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead, many in this small college town are still struggling with the aftermath of a crime that triggered nationwide sympathy and brought a re-examination of attitudes toward gays.
Ten years ago, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard died after being beaten and left in the cold by two men he met in a bar. Residents were shaken by the brutality of the crime, and the media descended on the town trying to explain why it happened.
Today, residents lament Shepard’s death but insist it doesn’t define Laramie or its people.
“It’s not representative of Laramie, of Wyoming or the West,” said Melodie Edwards, who owns a downtown bookstore.
“We have the same problems here that exist everywhere in the country ” racism, sexism, homophobia all exist,” said Jim Osborn, a University of Wyoming employee who is gay. “But I think that most people in Laramie are decent, friendly people who understand that while you might not like somebody, and you even have the right to hate somebody, you don’t have the right to hurt somebody because of that.”
Nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges, Laramie has a population of about 27,000, including roughly 10,000 students at the university.
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“It’s as close to small-town, rural America as you can get and still have a comprehensive university,” said University of Wyoming President Tom Buchanan, who grew up in New York and moved to Wyoming more than 30 years ago.
There was a gay community here in the fall of 1998 when Shepard enrolled at the university. He joined its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Association, a student group with about 50 members.
Shepard died Oct. 12, five days after his 5-foot-2, 105-pound body was found lashed to the lonely fence outside town. He was beaten so severely ” his skull was fractured in six places ” that the bicyclist who saw him initially thought he was a scarecrow lying on the ground.
The two men who killed him are serving life sentences in prison.
Residents disagree whether Shepard’s death was a hate crime, a drug-induced robbery that went too far or both. Prosecutors’ cases included evidence with elements of robbery, drugs and hate against gays, but the court only determined that the men were guilty of murder and not why they killed Shepard.
Whatever the case, life in Laramie changed.
“One of the things that the Matthew Shepard murder did was it reminded all of us, and it continues to remind all of us, that there is no place that is immune from random acts of senseless violence that plague our country, our society,” Buchanan said.
Laramie was thrust into the national spotlight by media attracted by the murder of a young gay college student in a small Western town. It also produced an outpouring of films, books and plays.
“A lot of the coverage I believe really capitalized on the mythos of the West,” said Osborn, who was chairman of the student gay group when Shepard joined and now works for the university’s diversity and equal employment opportunity office. “It was phrases like `He was a different kind of cowboy.’ Matt wasn’t a cowboy!”
Some of the coverage attempted to blame Laramie for somehow creating the murderers. Osborn recalled seeing one TV report quoting a local man at a bar as saying gay people should expect to be attacked in Wyoming.
“The crime of two people was presented as a crime of the city,” Mayor Klaus Hanson said.
Residents say prejudice against gays in Laramie is no different from anywhere else.
“I think people are pretty laissez-faire out here, pretty independent, a pretty accepting state,” said Jeff Figg, a retired businessman who moved here six years ago. “This is a much more enlightened area, the exact opposite of what the press portrayed it.”
Beth Loffreda, a UW English professor who wrote a book about residents’ response to the murder, said that even though Wyoming lawmakers have declined to pass a hate crime law she has noticed a change in how residents treat gays.
“I think it’s a little better here for gay and lesbian people than it was 10 years ago,” she said.
There wasn’t much in the way of publicly marking the 10-year anniversary of Shepard’s death. A week ago, the university dedicated a bench that had been donated by a foundation set up by Shepard’s parents to help support gay youths.
Osborn, Buchanan and others say the best way to honor Shepard is by treating gays as they would heterosexual people.
“We have realized in the most painful way that we cannot take tolerance and respect for granted,” Buchanan said at the bench dedication ceremony. “Instead we must make it an explicit part of our mission even when this posture exposes students, parents, community members and our leaders to ideas and concepts that challenge ingrained ways of thinking.”