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Shepard, Matthew (1976-1998)  
 
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Matthew Shepard led an unremarkable yet interesting life, but it was his shocking death that transformed him into an icon of the glbtq movement for equality.

Shepard was born in Casper, Wyoming, on December 1, 1976, the oldest son of Dennis and Judy Peck Shepard. He attended high school in Switzerland, spoke several languages, extolled human rights, and envisioned a career in diplomacy and world affairs. He briefly attended Catawba College in North Carolina and Casper College in Wyoming, where he performed in several plays, and then lived in Denver, where he held several jobs.

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In 1998, he enrolled as an "out" student at the University of Wyoming, where he majored in political science, international relations, and foreign languages. He soon joined the campus gay alliance.

Small and frail in stature, beautiful and boyish in looks, he was a kind and gentle spirit. He had recently learned that he was HIV-positive. Polite and friendly, he was generally unthreatening--except for his sexual orientation.

On the night of October 6, 1998, near Gay Awareness Week, Shepard was lured from the Fireside Bar, a gay-friendly hangout in downtown Laramie, by two men, Aaron McKinney, 22, and Russell Henderson, 21, who pretended to be gay.

After Shepard agreed to leave with them and got into their pickup truck, McKinney and Henderson drove to the other side of town, beat him with the butt of a .357 magnum pistol, stole his wallet (including his credit card, which provided a first clue to the police) and his shoes (so that he could not walk back), and tied him to a fence.

Hours later, the two men got into a fight with two Hispanics and used the still bloody gun to club them. Meanwhile, Shepard, immobilized and with the temperature dropping to below freezing, soon became comatose.

About eighteen hours later, a mountain biker found the brutalized young man. At first glance, he thought what he saw was a scarecrow.

Shepard was rushed to a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, and put on full life support, but in the early hours of October 12, without regaining consciousness, he expired, with his parents, who had been summoned from their home in Denver, by his side.

Medically, his death resulted from severe trauma to the brain stem, massive head fractures, and hypothermia. He was so badly injured that doctors were unable to perform surgery.

The scarecrow image, a vivid reminder of homosexuals as outcasts, coupled with the Biblical symbol of a crucifixion, caused an outcry across the world. Shepard made the cover of Time magazine and the front page of The New York Times; thousands of candlelight vigils were held across the nation. Within weeks, Shepard's parents had received 10,000 letters and 70,000 e-mails. The glbtq community, both outraged and frightened, grieved deeply.

Perhaps the most enduring detail of the image of the young man chained to the fence was his disfigured face--humanized by the small rivulets of tears from his eyes that had washed away the blood, an image evoked in countless poems, paintings, and portraits.

To understand the tragedy, attention focused on Laramie, supposedly Wyoming's most "liberal" town. Yet its liberality seemed not to extend to embracing the glbtq community. Years before, a local billboard had been altered from "Shoot a day or two" to "Shoot a gay or two." Confronted by the press, Laramie's inhabitants objected to the stereotype of them as bigoted cowboys, intolerant , and raging simpletons. They echoed the sentiment "it could happen anywhere."

But perhaps part of the problem with Laramie was its very refusal to acknowledge responsibility. Churches were filled with "hate the sin, love the sinner" slogans; and politicians eagerly proclaimed their mantra that "all crimes are hate crimes." Nobody, it seems, was willing to take an unequivocal stand for the rights of glbtq people.

Problematically, too, hate-monger Reverend Fred Phelps from Topeka, Kansas, author of the website GodHatesFags.com, attended Shepard's funeral to proclaim "No Tears for Queers" and "Matt in Hell." But the mourners, in heavy snow, shielded the grieving family with their umbrellas and sang "Amazing Grace."

Justice was served swiftly, but under an intense media scrutiny that at times imperiled a fair trial for the defendants. Henderson, to avoid the death penalty, struck a plea bargain and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

At McKinney's murder trial, Phelps was back, but once again counter-protesters, dressed as white "angels" with enormous wings, rendered his hatred void.

McKinney's lawyers desperately tried to advance the "gay panic defense," but the judge dismissed these attempts, ruling that such a defense is not recognized by Wyoming law.

For McKinney, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on two counts of felony murder (he was acquitted of first-degree murder). At the request of Shepard's parents, he was spared capital punishment and received two consecutive life sentences, without the possibility of appeal or parole, plus a lifelong gag order about the crime.

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