The enduring legacy of Matthew Shepard

2 Sep

On the night of October 7, 1998, 21 year old Matthew Shepard was beaten nearly to death in Laramie, Wyoming. Death via the wounds sustained in that beating would find him five days later while he lay comatose in a hospital bed. The murder of Matthew Shepard in many ways was not in vain. Since the time of Matthew’s death, the United States has undergone much change – some for the better, and some for the worse. What is certain however is that as unfortunate as it is that it took a brutal murder to enact change, change did come.

The nature of Matthew Shephard’s murder was so callous and brutal that it stunned the nation. No American wanted to believe we still lived in a country where a person could be pistol whipped repeatedly, kicked, hit, tortured, and then tied to a fence far from where he would easily be discovered to die alone. It was 18 hours before his nearly lifeless body was discovered covered in blood, and the process of freeing him in and of itself nearly killed him. Matthew’s murder sadly proved that America, like any other country, is a place that such things bot only can happen, but sometimes do happen.

While it is fairly common knowledge now how his murderers, Russell Henderson and Aaron Mckinney, fared at trial, and the ludicrous defense attempted to protect them, what can be taken from the trial itself is that as a nation, even a global community, we saw justice, change, and ultimately forgiveness in a sense.

The justice is that his murderers will almost certainly never see the light of day as free men as concurrent life sentences make that a near impossibility unless some judge some day sees a reason to alter that – which is unlikely. The trial changed the law. This is not just about the Matthew Shephard Crimes Bill, but it also nullified the “Gay Panic Defense” which had previously been used with alarmingly good success.

The “Gay Panic Defense” hinged on a simple premise – that learning a person was homosexual by virtually any means could in fact set a person into an altered state of mind not that unlike temporary insanity. Extrapolating from that, if a person was so panicked they became temporarily insane, they could not be held responsible for their actions. Ergo, beating or even murdering an LGBT person in the U.S. was virtually a punishment free crime in comparison to similar crimes committed against a heterosexual person. That is not to say there was no punishment, just that it was not equitable punishment. It was not that unlike the reasoning, to a certain degree, as was employed by the “Twinkie Defense” used by Dan White after murdering Harvey Milk.

Forgiveness is the aspect of the Matthew Shephard legacy that has been debated by some. People that like to see the glass half full argue that Shephard’s father asking that Mckinney, who refused to plead guilty, not be given the death sentence was an act of forgiveness. Others look at his words that followed that plea in which he told Mckinney he hoped he live a long life and thank Matthew for it every day while he was locked away. From a certain perspective, being alive behind bars your entire natural life with no hope of parole is worse than death – especially when it is because the family of your victim asked for that.

Something that is not often talked about that also came out during this ordeal, particularly in “The Laramie Project”, is that there is a well defined and deeper than often believed chasm in the perception of gays. While Laramie was the focus, in a sense, the nation as a whole is not that different. During the numerous interviews conducted to write the play, what was a constant recurring theme is that heterosexual people were often very quick to point out they didn’t mind gay people in Laramie and accepted them so long as they went unbothered by them. Gay people in Laramie however saw it very differently. To them, gay people were mildly tolerated so long as they were in the closet and left town to have any sort of normal social life. It was very much a matter of “out of sight, out of mind” rather that the “we welcome all” message parroted by the straight community of Laramie at that time.

While for the people of Laramie and country as a whole, everything did not change on dime because of the murder of Matthew Shephard – people did talk. People took stock of their views and wondered why? Why do I think as I do? Why do I feel as I do? Why do I act as I do? For some, there was a change of heart and thinking that carried over to their actions. For others, it made little difference. For the town of Laramie, no matter how hard it tries, it will be thought of by so many for one horrific event perpetrated by two young men that hadn’t the sense to realize the implications of what they were doing, or that it was wrong after it had been done.

While there is little solace in being an involuntary martyr for the victim or his loved ones, maybe the fact that his death has to some degree changed not just the country, but many places around the world is of some comfort. Although it took better than a decade, the Matthew Shephard Act did become a reality which helps bring to justice those who have committed crimes not just against LGBT people, but the disabled, women, and a number of minority groups. While Matthew’s body is no longer with us, his spirit and memory live on. Whether it be on the stage, film, songs, The Matthew Shephard Foundation, or legislation, Matthew Shephard’s enduring legacy is that he made a difference in the lives of millions of people he never met. For that, thank you Matthew, and rest well.

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