12 Crimes That Changed the LGBT World

The Advocate has covered the LGBT community for 45 years, and these crimes won’t soon be forgotten.




So much has been written about the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard (who was killed the same year that James Byrd Jr. was murdered in an atrocious antiblack hate crime) that the facts of the case are already etched in many LGBT memories. Matthew Wayne Shepard was a 21-year-old student, a slight and friendly poli-sci major at the University of Wyoming. On October 6, 1998, Shepard met Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney at a bar in Laramie, Wyo.; the men offered to drive Shepard home. Instead they drove to a desolate rural area where they tortured Shepard, robbed him, and tied him to a fence and left him to die. He was discovered some 18 hours later by a bicyclist who thought Shepard was a scarecrow. According to media reports and the book Illusive Shadows: Justice, Media, and Socially Significant American Trials, his face was completely covered in blood, except where tears had washed the blood away.

Taken to a hospital in nearby Fort Collins, Colo., Shepard remained in a coma for several  days before he died of severe brain-stem damage, which shut down his internal organs and his heart; he also had fractures to the front and back of his head and numerous lacerations on his upper body from being pistol-whipped.

The murder was so shocking that candlelight vigils sprang up not just in Laramie but in larger cities like San Francisco and New York, and Shepard’s mother, Judy, became a champion of hate-crimes legislation. Because there was no hate-crime law nationally or in Wyoming at the time, neither of the killers could be charged with one, even though at least one had admitted to his girlfriend that the attack was spurred by his homophobia.

Both Henderson and McKinney asked their girlfriends to offer them alibis. On trial, McKinney tried to employ a gay panic defense, a sort of temporary insanity in response to an alleged sexual advance from the much smaller and unarmed victim. His girlfriend, however, told prosecutors that the two men “pretended they were gay to get him in the truck and rob him.”

Henderson made a plea deal for two consecutive life terms, while McKinney was found guilty of felony murder. Shepard’s parents interceded on McKinney’s behalf, saving him from the death penalty. His father, Dennis, told the Los Angeles Times that life in prison showed “mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy” for his son. McKinney received two life terms without possibility of parole.

While Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, picketed Shepard’s funeral with signs that read “Fag Matt in Hell” and “No Tears for Queers,” the murder led to a sea change in how the public — from Hollywood to Peoria — viewed gay people as well as the need for sexual orientation and gender identity hate-crimes protections.

“Our nation, and our president at the time, was primed for dealing with this issue that was so long ignored,” says Renna. “It was 1998, just as the nation was having more and better national conversations about LGBT people — Ellen had just come out, our organizations were growing. and the Internet was becoming a powerful force for connection and action.”

Judy Shepard wrote a book in 2009, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed, and she became one of the most visible activists pressing for change. A decade after Matthew's murder, in October 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The first federal legislation to include LGBT people was just one of the changes that came from Shepard’s murder. Numerous artists recorded songs about Shepard and his murder (including Elton John, Trivium, Tori Amos, and Melissa Etheridge) and The Laramie Project (a play that became an HBO film, about the reaction of the town) has been performed in hundreds of locales around the globe.

The Laramie Project and the work of the Shepard Foundation and Judy Shepard's relentless speaking out have been instrumental in creating the foundation upon which we stand in speaking about LBGT youth issues in general,” Renna says. “As someone who went to Laramie days after his body was discovered, was in Laramie when he died, sat through the plea bargain hearing of Russell Henderson and the trial of Aaron McKinney, worked with Tectonic Theater Project and HBO on countless performances and screenings of The Laramie Project, worked on the Epilogue (recently completed) and serve on the advisory board of the Shepard Foundation, there is no other issue that has more profoundly affected my life and the way I do my work day to day. It has informed my work and changed my life. Judy and Dennis Shepard's work and commitment are an inspiration to me and offer me a model for how to live my life as an activist and a parent.”