It’s been over a decade since Matthew Shepard was victim of the brutal hate crime that took his life. On October 7, 1998, he met two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, that pretended to be gay in order to gain his trust. After befriending Matthew, they took him to a remote area outside of Laramie, Wyoming where they robbed, pistol-whipped, tortured, and assaulted him severely. It was reported that Matthew was beaten so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood, except where it had been partially washed clean by his tears. The two men then tied him to a fence with a rope from McKinney’s truck while Matthew pleaded for his life. He was left for dead. He was discovered 18 hours later by Aaron Kreifels, a cyclist who initially mistook Matthew for a scarecrow, and taken to the hospital.
Matthew suffered fractures to the back of his head and in front of his right ear. He experienced severe brainstem damage, which affected his body’s ability to regulate heart rate, body temperature, and other vital functions. There were about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face, and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. He never regained consciousness and remained on full life support. At 12:53 a.m. on October 12, 1998, Matthew Shepard was pronounced dead at Poudre Valley Hospital, in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Henderson and McKinney were not charged with a hate crime, because no Wyoming criminal statute provided for such a charge. The nature of Shepard’s murder led to requests for new legislation addressing hate crime, urged particularly by those who believed that Shepard was targeted on the basis of his sexual orientation. Under then United States federal law (and Wyoming state law) crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation were not prosecutable as hate crimes.
The Matthew Shepard Act was adopted as an amendment on July 15, 2009, and on October 22, 2009, the act was passed by the Senate. On October 28, 2009, President Obama signed the measure into law, making it the first federal law against LGBT hate crimes.
Even if things aren’t perfect, our country has made incredible progress on gay rights since 1998, and I’m happy to say that we live in a world that Matthew would have been proud of, and safe in. It breaks my heart that this beautiful person was violently taken from us before he ever really had a chance to shine—but it, at least, is reassuring to know that his legacy lives on, and that from his death has come so much good. Matthew Shepard: October 12, 1998. Never forget.