Remembering gay student Matthew Shepard and his legacy 20 years after his murder

Matthew Shepard's parents Dennis and Judy Shepard reflect on their son and how his murder was pivotal in the gay rights movement and spawned hate crime legislation.
8:26 | 10/12/18

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Transcript for Remembering gay student Matthew Shepard and his legacy 20 years after his murder
You said, I'm angrier now in some ways. I am. I thought we were making such great progress and then after the election, it was like, well, here we are, ground zero again. I'm so mad we are regressing. Here we are again. Just makes me very angry. Reporter: Matt Shepard, the gay college student savagely beaten last week in Wyoming died this morning. Reporter: It's been 20 years since Matthew Shepard's gruesome murder became synonymous with hate. His parents, Dennis and Judy, have turned their family's tragedy into a legacy of hope. But their fight for lgbtq rights is far from over. They point to a recent uptick in hate crimes, underscoring what they say is a resurgence of bigotry. It's discouraging. It's really scary if you're not a straight white Christian man in this country today. I'm worried about you. Reporter: Judy's son was a 21-year-old college student who was found beaten beyond recognition, tied to a wooden fence, and left to die. His murder sparking a national soul searching over homophobia but to his parents, Matthew was simply their son. Describe him as a kid growing up. What kind of child was he? Pain in my butt. A classic son. A classic child. A pain in your butt in what way? Mischievous? Stubborn? Describe it. Stubborn, argumentative. All those things. But it was something to look forward to. Reporter: From early on, they suspected and accepted that Matthew was gay. He said, mom, I'm gay, and I said, what took you so long to tell me? And he was like, I don't get it, how did you know before I knew? I said, it's -- I guess it's a mom thing. Reporter: Even then, the shepards say it was inconceivable that anyone would want to harm their son. We didn't realize the amount of violence and discrimination and animus against the gay community until after he died. We thought, he's born here in Wyoming, the middle of the United States, he's an American citizen, he has all the rights, responsibilities, duties and privileges of every other American citizen. Reporter: Especially in Wyoming in the land of live and let live, the shepards soon discovered that beneath the idyllic surface, intolerance was festering. On that cold day in 1998, a cyclist rode past fencing on the outskirts of Laramie and came upon what he thought was a scare crow. Instead, a more heinous discovery, Matthew clinging to life. He was all bandaged, face was swollen, stitches everywhere, comatose position already, fingers curled, toes curled, one eye was a little bit open. He wasn't -- I couldn't even have sworn that it was Matt until we got really closer and I could see the tubes in his mouth, I could see his braces and of course that was Matt. Of course it was. Reporter: Sheriff Dave O'Malley was assigned to the case. The things that I was initially able to determine was that the traumatic injuries to his face and his skull were likened to high speed impact crashes. Reporter: As if he got in a high speed car crash. Exactly. Just extremely brutal injuries. He was actually struck between 19 and 21 times, specifically concentrated on his head. Reporter: When did you realize how global a story this was? When the servers at the hospital began to crash with all the e-mail messages, people from all over the world inquiring about Matt or having something to say. Reporter: Matthew laid in a coma for six agonizing days but then he slipped away. It still rurts. Of course it does. Pictures come into your head and there it is again. Reporter: It will never leave you. No. Reporter: Initially, sheriff O'Malley and the local authorities thought it was a robbery. Something went profoundly wrong for them to drag him out of a truck and tie him to a fence and beat him in the head and the face with the butt end of that big gun. Reporter: That was no longer robbery. No. No. Not at all. Reporter: That was a hate crime. My opinion, yes. Reporter: According to the prosecutors, two locals, 21-year-old Russell Henderson and 22-year-old Aaron Mckinney met Matthew at a bar and lured him into Mckinney's truck by pretending to be gay. Both men were convicted of first-degree murder. At the time, hate crime laws didn't extend to cover sexual orientation. The trial becoming the crux for national debate around gay rights and anti-gay bias. Matthew's murder made many in Laramie examine the roots of prejudice and hate. I was mean spirited, extremely homophobic, and basically this investigation forced me to interact with the gay community many times. I feel kind of hypocritical talking about it because I flipped a 180 so quickly. It was just the way I had been for many years, and interacting with these kids that were friends of Matt's, it made me lose my ignorance really quick and it made me realize that my belief structures were based on what other people had told me. Reporter: Matthew's murder became the inspiration for the Laramie project. Are you Matthew Shepard? He says, yeah. Reporter: The play, performed more than 2,000 times in the U.S., translated into 13 languages, and immortalized in an HBO film. I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. Mckinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To someone who refused to show any mercy. Reporter: Dennis reread that courtroom letter at this year's 20th anniversary gala. I'm going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so. Reporter: What message were you trying to send to the perpetrators? I wasn't saying anything to the perpetrators. I was telling the world who Matt was as our son and as a brother that he was just an ordinary kid who wanted to make the world a better place. And they took that away from him. And from us. Reporter: The shepards take solace knowing their son's legacy reverberates to this day with this generation of lgbtq youth, like the outspoken olympic skater, Adam Rippon, who participated in the gala this year. The experiences that have been able to have, especially in the last few months, that a lot of them are in part to what Dennis and Judy Shepard have been able to do with their foundation. Putting a highlight on a lot of the discriminatory things that happened to lgbtq people has made the road a lot easier, especially for somebody like me. Then I noticed something. Reporter: Rippon was so moved by being in the play, he flew to Laramie to talk with lgbtq teens. I'm having my own struggle from when I came out and from when I was in high school to even have that ability to do that and to have the ability to have conversations like this, even, is something phenomenal. What do you want the legacy of Matthew Shepard to be? Events around this Toth year anniversary really show that change is happening and that people care about continuing Matthew's legacy. I want people to see Wyoming as not just a random, offensive red neck state that killed someone. I want them to see it as a place that recognized that that's not okay and started the changes around the nation to help fix problems. Reporter: That legacy is inspiring a whole new generation. After years of social activism. This afternoon, I signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James bird Jr. Hate crimes prevention act. Reporter: Even helping pass landmark legislation, expanding federal hate crimes to include lgbtq victims. And this is obviously incredibly important. That actually is a copy of the law that president Obama signed, making it official, protecting lgbtq. Reporter: The shepards are determined to continue honoring Matthew's name while keeping the flaws. He was smart, funny, people just were drawn to him. And there was a great loss, not just to us but to all his friends and people who hadn't met him yet. Reporter: Matthew Shepard's ashes will be interred at Washington national cathedral on Friday, October 26th. Judy and Dennis Shepard are planning to donate personal papers and objects representing Matthew's life to the smithsonian's permanent collection.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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