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How Matthew’s Death is Changing Our Town

Reprinted from the Bloomington (Indiana) Beacon, November 1998.

 How Matthew’s Death is Changing Our Town

by Elizabeth Jennings

LARAMIE, Wyo.—This story is about my town and my friends, and how this place and these people are changing because of Matthew Shepard’s Story. It’s about how, despite our hope and anger, some things may never change. At least, not without hard work.

Thursday, Oct. 8, I stopped by the newspaper where I previously had worked as a reporter, to pick up some tulip bulbs from and old friend. Huddled around a desk in the corner, the editor, three reporters and two of the sports guys discussed a recent crime:

A young man. Beaten. Outside of town. Tied to a fence. Left for dead through the cold night and a long day. Investigators thought the perpetrators went after the man because he was gay. He was lying in a Colorado hospital, barely alive. I didn’t recognize his name.

I took the information like a journalist. Facts.

A block away, in a bar on the corner of Grand and Third, three friends greeted me with beers in hand. I told them what I knew. Facts.

“When you first told us about it, I didn’t want to be around any straight people,” Stefani says now. She works at the local domestic violence advocacy center and lives in a  downtown apartment above one of our favorite after-work spots. “I sat there for a while, listened to you three talk, then went upstairs to me apartment and called every gay person I know. All I wanted was to be around people who were as scared as I was.”

Over the next three days, the University of Wyoming homecoming weekend, the horror of what had happened began to become real to me. I learned his name, that Matthew was a university student gifted in drama.

Stefani made a sign to hang out her second-story window: “Hate is Not a Wyoming Value,” written with marker on her comforter. It fluttered above us as we marched in the UW homecoming parade. Organized by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Student Association, 50 of us started at campus, holding placards and silently walking behind the bands and cheerleaders and floats. By the time we reached the intersection under Stefani’s window, there were at least 100 people marching with us.

Along the way, bystanders clapped in support. Old men and young mothers, dressed in the brown and gold school colors, nodded their heads. People cried. Even the little kids without fidgeting and watched.

It was amazing, Stefani said, “coming around the corner of Garfield and Third Street and seeing no end to the people marching behind us. It was like a little pride march in Laramie, but straight and gay people all together.” By the time we returned to campus, over 300 people marched beside us.

The conversations had started, and I was witnessing. After seeing the lead marchers with a sign voicing support for Matthew, a little boy asked his mother, “What did they do to him?”

“They hurt him really bad,” she told him.

All over Laramie, the state, and the world, people rallied around Matthew and spoke out against his accused assailants, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, both from Laramie and both Matthew’s age. Organizers from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment held meetings where gay and straight people planned to renew pressure for state hate crimes legislation. State legislators showed up to help. Churches sponsored community healing sessions. My boss, a geologist, talked at length about how his family, who lives near the site of the beating, began talking about homophobia for the first time.

During the week after Matt’s death, it felt as if the whole town going through grief.

Sure, I heard about the backlash, the people who said that Matthew Shepard’s beating was the university’s fault for letting gay people in, and because of it, two young men sat in the Albany County Detention Center with their lives ruined. One of my straight friends, active in supporting the gay community, found her car covered in eggs.

But most people seemed in shock. I read about protests and anger all around the country. But in Laramie, we were just sad. At work, I had no attention span. People complained of feeling scattered, of thinking about Matthew constantly. When meeting acquaintances, I quit asking, “How are you? I knew.

The day after Matthew died, my friend Elam was outed in the local newspaper. “Elam” is chosen pseudonym for this article. “I attended a vigil and people were talking about what it was like to be gay in Laramie,” Elam says. Before Matthew’s death, Elam was already packing his bags to move back East after living in Wyoming for over four years. “I stood up and told the group that the biggest reason I was moving was because I don’t get the support I need in the community,” says Elam, a 42-year-old groundskeeper. “I was tired of situations like at work, with certain coworkers talking about faggots and queers.”

A young, inexperienced reporter wrote Elam’s story without using name. “She didn’t have to,” he says. “There it was in the paper, and people at work recognized my story and recognized themselves.” His coworkers came to him individually and as a group, apologizing and voicing their love for him.

“Something hit me after Matthew died, one day when I was walking my dogs on the prairie,” Elam says. “I remembered walking like that months before and giving the universe three conditions. I wanted to live in Laramie—I love the open spaces—but I needed three things to stay: I needed a job where I could be out and it would be safe and supported. I wanted more support in general, in the community and from my friends. And I wanted someone special to love.” And I realized that last week I got all three.”

Elam is still living among boxes, but he has a new boyfriend to help him unpack. “I met him at the vigil,” Elam says. “We’ve been together ever since. And at work, it just keeps getting better. My boss, your typical straight Wyoming outdoorsman, has become my advocate. I told him I wanted to go see the fence where Matthew was beaten, but I didn’t know where it was, and he took me there himself. We just cried.”

“I’m still scared,” says Stefani, who came out to her father on her 24th birthday, the day Matthew died. “It doesn’t matter that there are two men in jail for the crime. I’ve always been afraid. It’s just made me more aware.”

And yet, Stefani says, “Matthew’s death, the fact that he might have died because he was gay, has woken up Laramie.” As a lesbian and domestic violence advocate, she hopes that Matthew’s story forces Wyoming and the country to address not only homophobia and its deadly consequences, but also the endemic violence in our culture.

“When we first heard about Matthew,” Elam says, “it was right before National Coming Out Week. We were afraid that everyone was going to slam the closet door. But, really, it’s been quite the opposite. As one person put it, the gay population doubled overnight. I almost feel guilty, like I shouldn’t be this excited, but I see this as an opportunity. What are we, as a gay community and the community of Laramie, going to make out of this?”

 

Elam is a pseudonym, chosen by him.

 

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