Lives Less Ordinary: The Matthew Shepard Murder 5 Years Later

Oct. 10, 2003 — -- 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."

Uneasy Celebrity and Activism

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.

But her travels — and the anniversary of her son's death — take their toll. Sitting in her hotel room at the Essex House in New York City, she is preparing for a benefit concert that night on behalf of the foundation. She knows her activism is helping others in the gay community. But she is never able to escape — or take much comfort from — the painful irony that her tragedy fuels her notoriety and mission.

"It's something I think about all the time," Mrs. Shepard told "The fact that something tragic happened to me and my family and the only reason I'm getting to meet these important people and the only reason these people care is because something horrible happened to me. … The only thing I can tell myself is that things happened for a reason. I have yet to figure out what that reason is, but things happen for a reason. I have to tell myself that."

Mrs. Shepard said that she was largely unaware of many issues facing the gay community five years ago. She and her family wanted to keep their grief private. But then they realized Matthew's death had larger implications and they had to take on a larger mission.

"At first we thought it was a family matter, just between us," Mrs. Shepard said. "We didn't realize the scope. At first, we thought it [the media attention] was invasive, and we were resentful. But then we realized Matthew's murder was something representative of the whole gay community."

More Progress, More Mainstream … More Problems

Since Shepard's death, gays and lesbians — at least in the mainstream media — seem to have become more widely accepted. There is greater awareness of gay culture, and gays have been represented in hit shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Six Feet Under.

In addition, 29 states now recognize sexual orientation in their hate crime laws — and more are considering including provisions against gay bias in their laws.

But mainstream exposure and legal protection have not ensured acceptance and safety of the gay community. FBI statistics indicate hate crimes against gays and lesbians are increasing.

According to the FBI's most recent statistics, the number of hate crimes reported overall between 2000 and 2001 rose from 8,063 to 9,730 while the number of hate crimes based on sexual orientation rose slightly from 1,299 to 1,393.

"Unfortunately, progress and more exposure does make gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders more of a target for those who feel threatened and just don't want to hear anything about it," said Renna. "It's just an unfortunate reality that people have to be prepared for."

Tug-of-War Over the Problem -- and the Solution

Despite the statistics, not everyone agrees that gays and lesbians need specific legislation to protect them.

Wyoming — the state where Shepard was killed — does not have a hate crime law that covers sexual orientation. As it is, Wyoming is one of four states that do not have any hate crime legislation whatsoever.

Police Chief O'Malley, who has lobbied for federal hate crime legislation that includes sexual orientation, hopes to present a bill for a sexual orientation hate crime law to the Wyoming state legislature before the end of the year. Based on past failures, he's not confident about its passage.

"I'm not holding my breath," he said. "We are a very conservative state."

Some use the same FBI statistics to argue against gay hate crime legislation: the numbers, they say, prove such laws have not detered crimes. Opponents of gay hate crime legislation argue it could be misused, and criminal cases could be mislabeled simply because of who the victims are.

Gay hate crimes legislation, others say, may unjustly target certain people because of their anti-gay beliefs, which are protected under the First Amendment.

And some say maintain legislation is only a part of the solution. Combating gay hate crimes means first targeting the sources of hate and bringing about a change of heart in those who justify attacking others because of differences.

"I may get in some trouble for this, but as far as bringing about real changes, it's not just about hate crime legislation," said Romaine Patterson, a gay activist and friend of Matthew Shepard. "This is really about hate and how it starts with every individual. We have to tackle hate on a personal level."

And maybe that is Matthew Shepard's legacy: recognizing that hate, in its various forms, must be attacked on a personal level, perhaps as early as elementary school. And that remembering that anyone — from a college student like Shepard to 15-year-old lesbian teenager Sakia Gunn, who was fatally stabbed in May after she allegedly rebuffed the advances of a man and told him she was a lesbian — can be a casualty of hate at any time.

"When Matt was killed, I remember seeing men in the office here who were just crying," Renna said. "When they heard about what happened to him, they saw themselves. When I first heard about Sakia Gunn, I couldn't help but start crying. I always mouth off at guys when I'm with my girlfriend. I thought, 'That could have been me.'"

Speaking for a Silenced Voice

Five years after his death, Shepard lives on through people who never met him — like Chief O'Malley — and his friends.

According to friends and acquaintances, Shepard had a bright future. Besides being active in theater, he had an interest in human rights and considered pursuing a career in international relations when his life was cut short at age 21. Some of Shepard's friends put aside their "ordinary" lives and emerged as local and national leaders in his memory.

"One of the greatest tragedies is that Matt was someone who wanted to make the world a better place and his voice has been silenced," said Jim Osborn, who was president of the University of Wyoming's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Association at the time of the slaying and has since spoken at several schools about its impact. "Since Matt could no longer speak, I, along with some of his friends, felt that we have a duty to speak for him."

Romaine Patterson became friends with Shepard when he was a student at Casper College before transferring to the University of Wyoming. She had always been an outspoken gay activist but Shepard's death put her on center stage to speak out on a national level — for her fallen friend, others who had been harassed because of their sexual orientation, and for herself.

"I was no longer just a girl from Wyoming," said Patterson, who is now a producer and co-host of the Derek and Romaine Show on SIRIUS, a New York-based satellite radio broadcast company. "I did a lot of interviews [during media coverage of Shepard's slaying] and worked for GLAAD. One of the things I learned after doing interviews and working on the other side as part of the media is that you do have the power to reach people and influence public opinion."

"I don't think there's been a day since where I don't talk about Matthew," Patterson continued. "As far how his death affected me, I guess it really made me think about what kind of person I wanted to be, how I wanted to be the kind of person who makes the world a better place."