20 years on, remembering Matthew Shepard

Two decades after his murder, Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, the Kelly Writers House, and the Penn LGBT Center will host a memorial reading to celebrate Shepard’s life.

Matt Shepard
A family photo of Matthew Shepard, murdered in 1998 as a 21-year-old in Laramie, Wyo. Photo courtesy: The Matthew Shepard Foundation

Friday, Oct. 12, marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old LGBT student at the University of Wyoming who was badly beaten and left to die in the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo.

The incident drew an unprecedented amount of media attention to the murder of a gay youth, and would eventually result in the 2009 passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, cementing sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability as protected groups under 1969 U.S. federal hate-crimes law. That, in addition to the 30 states that now have laws covering sexual orientation under hate-crimes law—all, in part, thanks to the advocacy of Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, who has made anti-hate activism her life’s work following her son’s murder.

At noon on Oct. 12, at Kelly Writers House, the Penn LGBT Center and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies will host a memorial reading to remember Shepard. Readers—from CAPS, Kelly Writers House, the LGBT Center, and undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty—will read a combination of original work, as well as select works from “Blood and Tears: Poems for Matthew Shepard.”

Here, David Azzolina, Penn Libraries’ collection development and liaison services librarian, as well as executive board member of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, who was not only involved in LGBT studies while a student at Penn, but is in charge of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies collections, reminisces about the tremendous impact Shepard’s story had on the country in 1998, and what he sees as his lasting legacy. 

What was it like when the murder happened?

People were pretty upset about it. Understandably. Matthew Shepard was an incredibly appealing human being on a lot of levels. He was a young man who was attractive and interesting and had an interesting life story, and because I think he was so young, he was also sort of a vulnerable figure. He struck a nerve with people that, although other gay men and other sexual-minority people had been murdered before, he struck a nerve with people that beforehand had not really hit quite so hard. 

Also, the brutality with which he was murdered was so extreme that it really pointed out the hatred with which gay people were attacked in a way that had not really been the focus of the popular imagination before. And the consequence of it was that it mobilized people in a way that they’d not been mobilized before. And the fact is that he was vulnerable. He met these two guys in a bar. They took him out to rural Wyoming, outside of Laramie, and basically strung him up, and that was almost a symbolic crucifixion. It added to the potency and the imagery of this young kid, who was a scrawny kid—not much bigger than I am, and I’m 5’4. I think he was smaller than I am. [He was 5’2”]. It was just ridiculous to think this kid could fight back. He was a bloody mess when they found him, and he went to the hospital and survived a couple days. Then there’s the fact that his mother really made his life story a focus point for homophobia.

Did she mean to do that, or do you think that was a byproduct of what happened and how people reacted?

I don’t know if she would have done it if it hadn’t been for what happened to him, but she certainly made it her life cause, and the fact is that—you know, she too was, and is, an appealing human being. And a mother’s grief really touches the heart of most anybody who doesn’t have a heart of stone. And she’s made it her life’s cause ever since, to work against violence against young gay men, and gay people in general. I think she’s also worked very hard to make anti-gay violence a crime, a hate crime. Before Matthew Shepard, it wasn’t as much a serious issue, in terms of legal issues, as it is now. And before Matthew Shepard, hate crimes against gay people weren’t even part of the legislative agenda. But because of Matthew Shepard, it’s become part of the legislative agenda. At least in many states. Not everywhere, but in many it has.

Matthew Shepard High School
A high school photo of Matthew Shepard. Photo courtesy: The Matthew Shepard Foundation


A lot of people don’t know there are states that still don’t have protections for gay people.

Anyone who is gay knows they are vulnerable to this sort of hate crime, particularly if you live outside a large urban area. Even in large urban areas, people are vulnerable to hate crimes; this happens in New York in Chelsea, a gay neighborhood. People get punched on the street.

You mentioned religious overtones. 

There was a really religious aspect to this that touched a lot of people. The crucifixion imagery that goes along with him, the fact that there’s this mother who cares for her son—you can’t help but resonate with the Christian aspect of Mary and Jesus. It’s hard not to see the connection, and I suspect that also made the story more powerful. Matt Shepard wasn’t the first young gay man to be murdered, or the last, but the story itself has such symbolic power it had resonance beyond its immediate effect.

And yet it still took 11 years for that federal hate crimes legislation to go through.

There was never going to be much movement on this front during the Bush Administration, so it took a Democratic Congress and president to make that happen. And it was legislation that connected it not just with Matthew Shepard but also the African-American man who was dragged by an automobile for about a mile before he died, James Byrd. The legislation was tied to both hate crimes.

There are arts and culture influences related to Matthew, too.

Certainly, there have been dramas written based on the Matthew Shepard story—that’s just it, Matthew Shepard resonated with the culture in a way that others, similar murders, did not or haven’t. [There's] the play ‘The Laramie Stories’ and there have been paintings about him, and so on. I think that will continue.


Matthew Shepard
A family photo of Matthew Shepard. Photo courtesy: The Matthew Shepard Foundation


What remains to be done for hate crimes legislation?

Well, it would be really great to have a federal hate crimes bill that had some teeth in it. And obviously, there are many states that still need to have hate crimes legislation. And you still find many politicians who don’t see the necessity of it. You also find there are many judges who will not—and prosecutors—who will not use hate crime legislation in addition to the initial prosecution on the basis of a specific crime. Because [prosecutors] will ignore the basis of a hate crime being part of a particular crime. Sometimes, prosecutors, with hate crimes, will argue they’re very hard to interpret when in fact the hate crime is actually obvious. And yet the prosecutors will not see that.

Is that just personal discomfort, or…?

Personal discomfort, or just their flat-out bias. You see this all the time with a lot of cases where the police are involved. Prosecutors are very reluctant to prosecute hate crimes when police are involved. 

This story really resonated in the ‘90s, but if this same thing happened today, would people have had the same reaction?

Well, I think the answer is ‘Yes.’ I’d like to think so. Certainly, there’s elements of the population with, say, Trayvon Martin, that are pretty irritated—some of these abuses still resonate with people and make them angry. Also, this happens with trans people all the time.  

The violence against certain people is really frustrating, and I see what you’re getting at; people become inured to it. It’s hard. One does grow weary. 

What do you hope his legacy is, thinking about another 20 years from now?

Well, I’d have to speak very personally about that. My personal response is that I’d like people to have a horror of hatred and the consequences of hatred. And hatred starts not at the end result of hatred; Matthew Shepard is the end result of hatred. But hatred starts with calling somebody a f-----t, or thinking somebody is less than. Not with a murder. And we’re all somewhat guilty of these phenomena. And we need to all be aware of it, and work on ourselves, and be more open to other people’s human experiences. And that’s what the sort of extreme example should teach us. I think we should all try and look at other people’s experiences with as much of an open heart as we possibly can. Because until we can do that, murders like Matthew Shepard’s are going to continue to happen. And that’s everyone’s responsibility.