Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times / MCT
Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013 | 2 a.m.
LARAMIE, Wyo. — Every year, the day sneaks on up on Judy Shepard to deliver its sucker punch from the past: The day Matthew died.
“It hits you and you say to yourself: Oh, this is the day,” she says. “This is why I feel so terrible.”
Fifteen years ago this week, gay college student Matthew Shepard was pistol-whipped and left for dead: unconscious, barely alive, lashed to a jagged wooden fence outside this small prairie city by two men disgusted by his homosexuality. A passer-by mistook the diminutive, 105-pound Shepard for a scarecrow — a forlorn and unthinkable image that still haunts a generation of Americans.
Judy Shepard refuses to associate her son with that image or with the date that he died — Oct. 12, six days after the attack. Instead, she summons memories of her eldest boy on Dec. 1, his birthday, celebrating his love for politics, languages and the spectacle of the musical “The Phantom of the Opera.”
On the anniversary of her son’s death, Shepard thinks not of the past, but of the future. As co-founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and a tireless advocate for gay rights, she’s hosting the annual mid-October fundraiser at the group’s Denver headquarters to support its work promoting tolerance. That’s when she tries to gauge just how far Wyoming and the nation have come in their acceptance of others in the years since Matthew’s murder.
Often the answer isn’t comforting.
She’s frustrated that Wyoming remains among a handful of states with no hate-crime law. State legislators refuse to recognize gay partnerships of any kind. And while her hometown of Casper once had an openly gay mayor, she says, most gays here remain in the closet, fearful they’ll be fired if their secret is exposed.
“Matthew’s death gave Wyoming a perfect opportunity to take the first step toward equality,” says Shepard, 61, during an interview in Casper. “Instead, it has taken two steps back.”
The nation’s attitudes toward gays have changed. They now openly serve in the military and 13 states have legalized same-sex marriage. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act expanded hate-crime laws to include offenses motivated by a victim’s gender or sexual orientation.
But setbacks still come. This month football players at the University of Mississippi yelled slurs and heckled actors during a performance of “The Laramie Project,” a play that explores the town’s reactions to the killing.
“It’s disappointing the nation as a whole isn’t embracing the movement to accept people like Matthew,” Shepard said. “We’ve still got a long way to go. That’s why an incident in Mississippi can still happen.”
Shepard believes her son’s death rallied others — gay and straight — to become more socially active. She has written a book, “The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed.” Still, she’s baffled by the power the crime still wields over the nation’s psyche.
“It’s a mystery,” she says. “Matt’s story has been used in this country to talk about the oppression of women in Afghanistan. His death initially brought gay issues to the attention of straight Americans. But I just can’t fathom why this tragedy continues to resonate with so many people.”
For Shepard, it seems like forever since Matthew, then 21 and still wearing boyish braces, telephoned from college to announce he was gay. Like many mothers in such situations, she already knew. “I asked him, ‘What took you so long to tell me?’”
Matthew had a favor to ask: He wanted to tell his father in person. Judy agreed — that way, she could prepare her husband, Dennis, a safety engineer based in Saudi Arabia, who had just returned to the U.S. for a family reunion.
At the gathering, in the privacy of a kitchen, Dennis was ready when his son said, “Dad, I’ve got something important to tell you.”
“What is it?” he said.
“So,” the father said, “what’s the important thing you have to tell me?”
Dennis Shepard, 64, remembers what happened next: “It shocked him. Matthew was really into theater and he was very dramatic. He thought I’d yell and scream at him, throw him through the door and bust things. As a dad, sure I’d wanted a son to go hunting and fishing with, but then I realized, ‘How selfish is that? We still have Matt. He’s still with us. We can still do things.’”
Two months later, Matthew Shepard was dead.
On the night of Oct. 6, 1998, Shepard left the Fireside Bar in Laramie with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. He was discovered tied to the fence 18 hours later. Albany County Undersheriff Rob DeBree recalls that one deputy thought Shepard was a child: “He looked so small, so fragile — she said he was a boy of 12, maybe 13.”
The murder trial exposed a nation conflicted. As protesters waved signs with anti-gay slurs and “Matt Shepard rots in hell,” others covered the words with handmade “wings of angels,” as onlookers called them.
Years later, Dennis Shepard doesn’t hide his vitriol for his son’s killers, who received two consecutive life sentences without parole. “Bury ’em deep,” he says, “so they can’t live to be martyrs or poster children.”
But healing has taken place here.
Guy Padgett, Casper’s gay former mayor, says Shepard’s murder prompted Wyoming to look harder at itself. “The way Matthew was killed forced people to answer the question: Is this the culture they wanted to be perceived to be from? And the answer for most was, ‘No.’”
For Jason Marsden, Padgett’s partner and executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the death led to a personal epiphany: Then a Casper newspaper reporter, Marsden came out in a column, describing himself and Shepard, who was a friend, as “members of the loose-knit community of gay people striving to make our way in this sometimes hostile place called Wyoming.”
Nowadays, Marsden points to Cathy Connolly, Wyoming’s only openly gay legislator. Elected in 2009, she represents Laramie. He also dismisses a new book, “The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard,” that suggests Shepard was killed in a botched drug deal.
In Laramie, the crime-scene fence is gone, replaced by “No trespassing” signs, but emotional scars linger here.
“We’ve been painted in a pretty dim light for a crime that could have happened anywhere,” Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out of state and some bartender will learn I’m from Wyoming. He doesn’t talk about the great fishing here or wide-open spaces. He just says, ‘Oh, that’s the place that kid was killed.’”
The Shepards once thought they’d retire in Laramie. They’d met at the University of Wyoming, after all, and the family often visited Matthew’s godparents there.
“It always felt like home,” Judy says. “Now it just feels wrong.”
Judy has never been to the spot where her son died. She doesn’t want to carry that image. Instead, she rescued from the police evidence room the watch Matthew was wearing when he was attacked. It was a gift she gave him for his high school graduation.
She keeps it on a bedroom dresser where she can read its face, as a reminder of Matthew’s life — and that time goes on.