The first reports about an investigation into an attempted murder in Laramie were released on Oct. 8, 1998.
On Oct. 6, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in downtown Laramie, and he later left with them. Then McKinney and Henderson drove to an area east of town where they robbed him, beat him with a pistol, took his shoes, tied him to a fence and left.
Shepard was discovered by a cyclist 18 hours later, covered in blood and in a coma. He was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he never regained consciousness and died six days later.
Henderson and McKinney were arrested soon after and charged with first-degree murder. In 1999, they were each sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
The murder and subsequent legal proceedings drew the attention of national and international media, linking Laramie inextricably with the name Matthew Shepard. Reports soon coalesced around the suspicion that Shepard’s attackers were motivated by the fact that he was gay.
After growing up in Casper, Shepard attended two years of high school in Switzerland while his parents lived in Saudi Arabia. He then returned to the States and was living in Denver before moving to Laramie to attend UW and study political science. In media reports, friends and family described him as friendly, sensitive and optimistic.
In Laramie 20 years later, Matthew Shepard is remembered and missed. His life and death have inspired residents — some who knew him and some who never met him — in their work, their activism and the way they live their lives. Here are five ways of looking at a legacy.
Jim Osborn moved to Laramie in 1994 to attend UW, having grown up in tiny Wright. He was planning to become an English teacher before Shepard’s murder, which had a “profound” impact on the direction of his life.
“When I finished my coursework, I decided there’s still too much work to be done here in Laramie,” he said.
Osborn was chair of UW’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Association in the fall of 1998, which brought him into the national spotlight through media coverage of Shepard’s murder. He has maintained an outspoken position ever since.
In April 1999, Osborn was part of a group whose members dressed as angels with large, outspread wings and stood in front of Albany County Courthouse to block the signs and voices of protestors led by Fred Phelps from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.
“We didn’t want to let a message of hate go unchallenged,” he said.
Osborn is UW’s Title IX coordinator, where he works to prevent sexual discrimination and misconduct. He described Shepard as someone who believed in “the beauty of people and humanity” in all forms. When Shepard died, Osborn made a promise to him.
“I vowed that I would do everything in my power to pick up where he left off and to use my voice in any way that I could because his voice had been silenced,” Osborn said. “That’s part of the reason that I’m here 20 years later still today, telling his story and sharing his legacy and his way of looking at people.”
Osborn is a married father of a five-year-old daughter who started kindergarten this year, and he smiles when he talks about her.
He and his husband recently purchased a parcel of land outside town so their daughter could grow up experiencing Wyoming’s open spaces like they did. Such a life wasn’t open to him 20 years ago.
When thinking about what’s changed over the last 20 years in Laramie, Osborn ticks off a list. On campus, the Rainbow Resource Center offers a computer lab, meeting area and research library with LGBTQ+ publications, and it’s open to students, faculty, staff and community members.
In 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal hate crime law to apply to crimes motivated by a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
A federal policy barring openly gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals from military service, known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, was eliminated in 2011.
In 2015, the Laramie City Council passed a non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation — the first of its kind in Wyoming.
Also in 2015, the United States Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage in Obergefell v Hodges.
“All of those have made a profound impact on the lives of people,” Osborn said.
In 2017, UW created the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and hired its first Chief Diversity Officer, Emily Monago. In the last year, Monago has been gathering feedback from around campus about diversity priorities, which are helping guide a strategic plan. At the top of the list, she said, are student recruitment, retention and graduation.
“How we can make the campus a more welcoming community where everybody feels like they belong?” she said.
She said the campus community is interested in opportunities for diversity education, such as with events surrounding the Shepard 20th Memorial.
“I feel that real wave of support,” she said.
Perhaps most encouraging for Osborn is that he’s hearing more conversations around him about fairness and diversity that include LGBTQ+ issues.
“We can’t make progress on an issue before we have change in the hearts and minds of people,” he said.
Continued progress requires continued conversations, he said, especially when it comes to teaching the next generation.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do to ensure fairness and ensure safety for everybody,” he said.
Osborn said he hoped others would commit to their own efforts toward equality — talk to their children about violence, speak up on behalf of someone, take a stand against hate.
“All it takes is for caring people to stand up and use their voice. That can literally change the world, and it can literally save lives,” he said.
Jess Fahlsing thinks about Matthew Shepard all the time.
Fahlsing, a third-year UW student who grew up in Rock Springs, didn’t know who Shepard was until they were a senior in high school. Not surprising for a kid from a small, rural town, they said.
“In a lot of parts of Wyoming, Matt isn’t talked about,” they said.
Fahlsing’s thoughts about Shepard range from haunting and hurting — 20 years ago a man was murdered because of his sexual identity — to hopeful.
“Laramie isn’t a hateful place, and we had a community response focused on love and compassion,” they said.
Fahlsing has been immersed in social justice work on campus and around Laramie for the last couple years, including helping plan last summer’s Laramie PrideFest, a four-day event that included shows, dances, a march, a film festival, an interfaith service and a Matthew Shepard candlelight vigil. Downtown businesses displayed pride flags in their front windows throughout the weekend.
“It made me feel pretty proud of Laramie, honestly,” Fahlsing said.
Fahlsing is also co-chair of the Matthew Shepard Memorial Group, which is organizing a series of events contemplating and remembering the 20th anniversary of his murder. The group is a subcommittee of the annual Shepard Symposium on Social Justice. In addition to events, the memorial group has compiled texts and classroom resources for educators.
“I think the curriculum is honestly one of the things I’m most excited about because it’s something that will last,” they said. “I hope this really sparks in people the desire to keep Matthew’s legacy alive in themselves.”
Fahlsing is motivated by Shepard’s life and death to act on a daily basis, even in small ways, to create an inclusive and safe world.
“Really being the best friend and ally that I can be to folks, being there for someone if they’re having a rough day, being aware of the resources on campus and in the community, being a good listener and sometimes being willing to have difficult conversations around hard topics,” they said.
Rachel Watson moved to Laramie in the summer of 1998. She came from Denver with her partner, Christi Boggs, to work on a master’s degree and fell in love with the town right away.
She described her feelings in the wake of Shepard’s murder, which occurred several months later, as a “hard moment,” as she and Boggs considered whether they wanted to stay in Laramie. Ultimately, she stayed, forging a career at the University of Wyoming in the two decades since, her work galvanized by tragedy.
“Matthew Shepard’s murder played a huge role in completely forming the scholar that I am,” Watson said. “And I think that’s true of a lot of people in town. In the 20 years that have passed, we’ve had the honor of seeing how an event that’s so horrible can also create so much beauty in its wake.”
In her office in the Physical Sciences Building, numerous plaques and certificates commemorating teaching awards dot the cinder block walls — a testament to her unique ability to connect with students.
Watson currently directs the Queer Studies minor at UW, which was approved in 2011 and is housed in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. UW professor Cathy Connolly spent a semester researching programs around the country in preparing the proposal for the program.
Watson also directs a mentoring program aimed at teaching faculty how to incorporate active learning in their classrooms. The program is part of the UW Science Initiative.
Through those efforts as well as instruction in the Department of Chemistry, Watson is working to knit queer theory, inclusion and environmental and social justice into multiple disciplines.
“Queer theory is a way of looking at the way in which we all dis-align from the norm,” she said. “It can inform all of our disciplines, and does, in a meaningful way.”
The Queer Studies program usually has about a dozen students from undergraduate and graduate programs around campus.
Mercedes Fermelia, a UW student from Cheyenne studying microbiology and physiology with a minor in queer studies, hopes to teach biomedical sciences someday and plans to draw on her queer studies work to shape her classroom.
“The general lens of society is to look at people and assume that they’re straight or heterosexual and that they identify with the gender they were assigned at birth,” she said. “With the queer studies lens, you get to see people as just people and you try not to make assumptions about them before you talk to them, which can open up some pretty cool things.”
Fermelia said she was initially “very scared” to come to UW as an out lesbian, but found the move easier than expected.
“I was surprised at how many people there are in the queer community in Laramie, and maybe it’s because people feel safer,” she said.
Fermelia said she’s heard slurs directed her way, she’s wary when out at night, and she avoids certain places in town.
“While I do feel safe, for the most part, I wonder if Matthew Shepard also felt safe. I wonder if he felt anything when he was going out that night — if he was afraid. I bet he wasn’t, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone,” she said.
Watson holds evening office hours online instead of on campus to avoid being out at night, but she’s less afraid for her own safety than that of those around her.
“I fear for people I love being targeted, more than myself,” she said.
The front on which she’s directing her efforts and hoping for further change is in developing curriculum that’s truly inclusive. Every UW student can be reached in the classroom, no matter what campus clubs they join.
She’s seen a change in the attitude of UW students over the years, as they’ve generally become more comfortable with multiple categories of sexuality and gender instead of binary ones.
“It’s been a shift, and a positive one, in our students,” Watson said.
Cathy Connolly moved to Laramie in 1992 to teach at UW. Her current position is in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, which is housed in the School of Culture, Gender and Social Justice.
By 1998, she had been in Laramie for six years and was raising her son with the knowledge that his family wasn’t something to keep a secret. Shepard’s murder cemented her resolve to live openly.
“I certainly vowed to never hide my sexuality,” she said.
That meant standing out as the first openly gay faculty member at UW and later in the Wyoming Legislature. It also meant never shrinking from tough conversations as a public figure, even when they involved personal issues.
“I’m not going to hide, and I’m not going to lie,” she said. “It’s just who I am.”
Connolly ran for a seat in the Wyoming House in 2008. She called the decision a choice to move from studying policy to crafting it, motivated by a slew of issues including early childhood education, education funding, criminal justice reform, juvenile justice reform, alternative schools, Medicaid expansion, mental health parity, the wage gap and gay rights.
For years, Connolly has been working on a statewide non-discrimination ordinance, similar to the one adopted by Laramie in 2015. She’ll continue those efforts during the 2019 legislative session.
“I am, per se, the face of optimism,” she said. “I have to believe in the system, and I have to believe that the work will eventually pay off, and I’m hopeful it will be this year.”
Although the last 20 years have brought positive changes for Wyoming’s LBGTQ+ residents, Connolly regrets that homophobic violence still exists.
“We haven’t done enough of significance to change that,” she said.
According to a report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 52 LGBTQ+ people were killed in 2017 because of bias-motivated violence. That figure is the latest in a trend of increasing violence and the highest number since 1996, excluding 2016’s mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
The FBI reported 6,063 incidents of hate crime in 2016, with about 17 percent of the victims targeted because of sexual orientation.
In Wyoming, Connolly pointed to the case of two former high school wrestlers in Riverton who were sentenced to jail time in September for assaulting younger wrestlers on a bus on the way to a tournament in January.
“The reality of homophobic bullying is still really prevalent,” she said.
Laramie, because of Shepard’s murder, has become inextricably connected with homophobic violence. Interview subjects for this story reported meeting strangers familiar with Matthew Shepard’s murder while traveling around the country and as far away as Italy and Japan.
For Connolly, that means Laramie should be out front reflecting on what happened in its own backyard.
“I do think we have that collective responsibility, and I’m okay with that,” she said.
She pointed out that Westerners don’t like big city types and coastal types talking for them about other issues. Doesn’t the same hold true when it comes to Matthew Shepard?
“Why shouldn’t we be talking about his murder?” she said.
Connolly said individuals wanting more change should get more involved in elections by learning about their candidates and voting their values. Then they need to speak up and support legislation that’s important to them.
“It’s about changing our institutions,” she said.
Nichol Bondurant moved to Laramie from Casper in the summer of 1998, about the same time Shepard did, to begin work on a teaching certificate.
Before his murder, she had dabbled in social activism by going to a march here or there. But then a man she knew was murdered in her community, and she was planning to do her student teaching at the high school that had graduated his murderers. She thought about the world her three-year-old daughter would grow up in.
“All of those things built upon themselves, to where it moved me from inaction to action,” she said.
Bondurant was part of the group alongside Osborn that wore angel costumes to block protesters outside the courthouse bearing derogatory signs.
“It wasn’t that hard of a thing to decide to do, to stand up against hate,” she said.
A few years later, Bondurant returned to Laramie High School as an English teacher, and she’s been there for the 17 years since. During that time, she’s been a faculty advisor for a variety of clubs focused on social activism, suicide prevention and supporting LGBTQ+ youth. Her classroom walls are covered with posters bearing encouraging slogans and advertising events in town.
These days, she said, some students say they don’t need a club like SALLY — an acronym that stands for Safe Area for Laramie LGBT Youth — because they’re comfortable in their classrooms. They say their sexual orientation is accepted by their peers.
“I’ve gotten to watch that change happen,” she said.
She’s also on the lookout for students who are bullied for other reasons, such as their social class. She thinks back to Henderson and McKinney and wonders what their experience was like in high school.
“They were young. They might have made different decisions and Matt would still be here,” she said.
The arrival of the 20-year mark since Shepard’s murder — let’s not call it anniversary, she said — has renewed her focus on offering kindness, remembering the positive things that have changed, and fighting off complacency.
She hopes everyone living in Laramie will know they’ve got a community that will accept them and celebrate them, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“We have a huge community of supportive people, so I’m just one of the masses,” she said.