The people who knew Matthew Shepard are turning his death into a stepping stone in the battle for gay rights one year after the beating of the gay University of Wyoming student.
A year ago this week, Shepard became a symbol for the gay rights crusade after he was attacked in Laramie, Wyo., Oct. 7, 1998. He was allegedly lured out of a bar, driven to a remote prairie, pistol whipped as he was tied to a fence and left for dead in cold weather. He never regained consciousness and died five days later. His sexual orientation is considered by many to be the motive for the attack.
The hate crime last year sparked candlelight vigils at college campuses across the country and heightened concerns that these incidents could happen anywhere.
“No matter where you are, you like to think that this kind of thing couldn’t happen in your town,” said Jim Osborne, who was chairman of the University’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Alliance at the time of Shepard’s death and now serves as its adviser. “It’s not easy to be gay anywhere.”
This week is National Coming Out Week and is being recognized on many college campuses, including Shepard’s school. Osborne said this week has new meaning for people who knew the 21-year-old Shepard.
“I think that Matthew’s death served as a wake-up call for people in America and around the world,” Osborne said. “He broke through stereotypes. They took one look at his picture and said `This looks like the kid next door.'”
The events of last year have had a lasting effect on Osborne’s life. He said he went from being a gay-rights advocate at one college campus to being an international celebrity in the fight for gay college students.
“Last October, it was surreal to go home and have friends say they saw me on CNN,” Osborne said. “This is not anywhere near the notoriety I expected to attract and not for these reasons.”
He spoke of an incident where he was approached by a woman who recognized him at an airport. Although she had kind words for him, Osborne said it made him nervous that so many people knew him and associated him with the gay rights movement.
Another private life that has gone public since Shepard’s death is that of his mother, Judy. The former Saudi Arabia resident turned her son’s death into a rallying cry for hate crimes legislation. Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last May, she urged legislators to provide another tool to law enforcement.
“Matt is no longer with us today because the men who killed him learned to hate,” Judy Shepard told lawmakers. “Somehow and somewhere they received the message that the lives of gay people are not as worthy of respect, dignity and honor as the lives of other people. They were given the impression that society condoned or at least was indifferent to violence against gay and lesbian Americans.
“Today, we have it within our power to send a very different message than the one received by the people who killed my son,” she said. “It is time to stop living in denial and to address a real problem that is destroying families like mine.”
Judy Shepard is featured in a public service announcement that will air on MTV, preaching tolerance. She was also at a vigil at the University of Wyoming this week.
In the midst of their remembrance, friends and family of Shepard are expected to attend the trial of Aaron McKinney, one of two men accused of Shepard’s death. Jury selection in McKinney’s trial began Monday. The other murder defendant, Russell Henderson, pled guilty in April and received two life sentences.
The defendants’ girlfriends, Chasity Pasley and Kristen Price, were both charged with being an accessory to first-degree murder. Pasley received up to two years in prison after pleading guilty. Price, McKinney’s girlfriend, faces trial in January.
After a year to reflect on Shepard’s life and death, Osborne said he understands “the temporary nature of human existence.”
“I value every single moment I have with people I know,” he said. “I think I have a more realistic view of the world around me.”