Mathew Shepard murder–a wake up call for the U.S.

On October 12, 1998, Mathew Shepard died in hospital six days after he was brutally beaten and left tied to a fence in a remote area of Wyoming. 

The 21 year old gay college student was lured to the area after he met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at a dive bar in Laramie, Wyoming.

The men used a clothesline to tie Shepard to a fence and then struck him in the face and head over 20 times with the butt of a handgun.  They stole his wallet and his shoes and left him tied to the fence.

About 18 hours later a passerby discovered the young man, unconscious and barely alive. 

His parents, who lived out of the country at the time, rushed to Shepard’s side.  Judy and Denis Shepard barely recognized their son because his face was so badly injured. 

Shepard died six days later.  He never regained consciousness.

His death sparked a seismic shift in attitudes toward the gay community and helped galvanize the civil rights movement for LGBTQ people.

Two days after Shepard passed away, tearful politicians and celebrities gathered on the steps of the US Capitol to address a vigil of thousands. Among the speakers was Ellen Degeneres who came out as gay a year earlier.

Shepard’s parents set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation which for more than a decade lobbied for better federal hate crime legislation.

As a result, in 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which is also named for a black man killed by three white supremacists in 1998 who dragged him behind a truck in Texas.

The federal law expanded the power of the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on sexuality and gender.

Shepard’s life and death have been catalogued in plays, movies, documentaries, poems, music, books, and countless profiles and magazine articles.

A collection of his personal effects – donated by his family – was put on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

His school work, theatre scripts and photos are among the exhibits.

And in 2018 his remains were interred at the Washington National Cathedral, alongside the likes of former President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller.

Mathew Shepard laid to rest in Washington in 2018

McKinney and Henderson were found guilty of murder and are serving two consecutive life sentences.  McKinney had tried to claim the “gay panic” defence, which remains a legal defence in some U.S. states. 

For more stories from the 1990s, make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at http://www.curiouscast.ca

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