Police Chief Dave O'Malley of Laramie, Wyo., was an unlikely gay rights activist — but that was before he ever heard of Matthew Shepard.
Five years ago, O'Malley may have felt leery around Shepard. At the time of the beating of the gay University of Wyoming college student on Oct. 6, 1998 — and his death six days later — O'Malley was a commander in the Laramie Police Department and he said he shared some of the views typical of his colleagues on homosexuality.
"I was conservative. I bought into many of the stereotypes and I told many of the jokes associated with someone who is gay," O'Malley said. "I was close-minded. It's something I'm really ashamed of today."
"I was raised in a conservative, Irish-Catholic family in Kansas," O'Malley continued. "My father would joke around, saying 'There are no gays in Kansas. And if there are, they sure as hell ain't Irish.' … I lost my ignorance [after Shepard's slaying]."
Shepard was lured from a bar by two men pretending to be gay, driven to a remote area, tied to a fence, beaten and pistol-whipped. He was found comatose and died just days later.
Shepard's murder sparked a metamorphosis in O'Malley. The once-homophobic police officer became close friends with the parents of Matthew Shepard, Judy and Dennis, and several members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He became involved with the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay rights advocacy group and began to fight for gay hate crimes legislation. O'Malley won the organization's Equality Award in 2002, an honor he calls one of the proudest moments of his life
In some ways, O'Malley's change of heart reflects the transformation in America's perception of gays and lesbians since Shepard's slaying. What was once thought taboo became headline news and water cooler conversation. The fatal attack on Shepard — and the respective guilty plea and murder conviction of his attackers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney — forced America to recognize that gays and lesbians are targets for hate crimes.
"Matt's murder made people realize that it was time to change laws, that attacks on gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders are happening, that this an issue," said Cathy Renna, spokeswoman for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). "In a sense, it was a watershed moment. It took the topic of gay and lesbian people and turned it into dinner table conversation."
But dinner table conversation for a nation became uneasy celebrity for the Shepard family, particularly Judy Shepard.
Judy Shepard has become a much sought-after gay rights activist since her son Matthew was killed. She and her husband Dennis set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a non-profit organization designed to provide education and raise awareness of issues about the gay community. Mrs. Shepard has testified in Washington, D.C., and lobbied for federal gay hate crime laws and foughts of gays' rights to marry and adopt. She has spoken at several colleges and high schools about her loss and the mission of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.