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social sciences

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Shepard, Matthew (1976-1998)  
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In asking the court to spare his son's murderer, Dennis Shepard, Matthew's father, remarked, "My son Matthew paid a terrible price to open the eyes of all of us who live in Wyoming, the United States, and the world to the unjust and unnecessary fears, discrimination, and intolerance that members of the gay community face every day."

He addressed McKinney directly, telling him, "My son died because of your ignorance and intolerance . . . . I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it."

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In many ways, Shepard's death was all too familiar, perhaps a little more cruel and bloody than the usual fatal gaybashing, but not different in kind from many others. Yet his death struck a deep chord in the glbtq community and throughout the country (indeed, the world), probably because of his youth, his good looks, and his vulnerability.

Consequently, Shepard became an icon of the glbtq movement for equality, a symbol, as his father phrased it, "against hate . . . a symbol for encouraging respect for individuality; for appreciating that someone is different; for tolerance."

Most immediately, he became the poster boy for hate crimes legislation. Such laws were adopted in several jurisdictions, but failed to pass in many states and stalled on the federal level. Although Wyoming refused to adopt a statewide hate crimes law, a local ordinance did pass in Laramie.

Shepard's parents have since become vocal activists for glbtq rights. His mother Judy Shepard maintains a heavy speaking schedule and lobbies in support of hate crimes legislation and services for homeless gay and lesbian youth.

In 1999, the Shepards established the Matthew Shepard Foundation ( They also maintain a personal tribute, Matthew's Place (, with many links to online resources, such as the Human Rights Campaign; the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; the Matthew Shepard Memorial Quilt; and advice for parents, friends, and families with glbtq children and relatives. The site also preserves Dennis Shepard's statements to the court at the conclusion of the McKinney trial.

Shepard has become a fixture of popular culture, evoked by celebrities and performers in order to signal their position on hate crimes and gay bashings. Ellen DeGeneres and Barbara Streisand attended a Matthew Shepard rally on Capitol Hill just days after the incident; inspired by Shepard's death, Melissa Etheridge wrote "Scarecrow" on her album Breakdown and dedicated it to Shepard's memory; Elton John presented a concert in Laramie and played "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" especially for the slain young man; Peter, Paul, and Mary also performed in Wyoming at a concert in Shepard's memory.

In 2000, Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project performed the play The Laramie Project in Laramie and then across the country; made into an HBO motion picture in 2002, it has since become a staple of university and community theater. In 2002, NBC broadcast a made-for-television movie, The Matthew Shepard Story, starring Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston.

In academia, Shepard has been honored as well. Every year, thanks to the First Friday Breakfast Club, the Lambda Beta Nu Breakfast Club (gay and lesbian associations respectively), and the Rich Eychaner Charitable Foundation, three openly gay and lesbian Iowa high school seniors are eligible for free tuition at Iowa's public universities. At Weber State University, "18 concerned individuals," mostly from Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Northern Utah, set up a Matthew Shepard scholarship to "promote awareness." Monmouth University has a fund, supported through the royalties from the book From Hate Crimes to Human Rights: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard (2001), for students who plan to work for "human rights advocacy."

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