Laramie Remembers Matthew Shepard Attack
October 08 2003 12:00 AM ET
Five years ago Tuesday, an openly gay college freshman named Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence and beaten into a coma. His death five days later left Peter Moran shaken about Laramie, Wyo., a community of 27,000 and the place where he grew up. "It was the worst possible thing you could hear about your hometown," Moran recalled. He remembered telling his wife, "Laramie is a nicer town than this." Today, Laramie seems to be more tolerant and understanding of gays. There are seminars on gay issues, diversity workshops, and an annual walk to raise money for HIV/AIDS organizations. "In Laramie and throughout the country, it's all gotten better," said Travis, a University of Wyoming senior and executive board member of Spectrum, the campus gay and lesbian group. Travis asked that his last name not be used because he doesn't want his parents to know he is gay. Gay Awareness Week has turned into Gay Awareness Month, and the university is supporting the Rainbow Resource Center, where gay students can hang out. Credited with creating the more open atmosphere is university president Philip Dubois. "I wasn't one of the people...looking to find in Matthew's murder some explanation in the hearts and minds of our community," Dubois said. "Having said that, I think one has to acknowledge that antigay attitudes live everywhere among some people, and I think we've done a reasonably good job here of keeping the dialogue about social justice alive." Shepard was attacked by two men he met in a bar. They persuaded him to get into their pickup truck, then drove him to a sheep ranch, where they tied him with clothesline to a log fence. Using their fists and the butt of a pistol, the assailants struck Shepard at least 18 times, then robbed him of $20 and his shoes so he couldn't walk back to town. Condemnation of the crime came from around the world. Candlelight vigils were held. Debates ensued over the treatment of gays, and measures were passed adding sexual orientation to antidiscrimination laws. The attackers were caught, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. In the days and weeks after the attack, Laramie was portrayed unfairly, said Moran, an assistant education professor at the university. He believes the Shepard murder received more attention perhaps because it occurred in a rural area. "The images that I can conjure up--the fence, the mountain vista beyond--it 's not the same as a dirty alley in Chicago," Moran said. "You can still see those images plain as day." Dee Swanson rejected what she felt were unfair stereotypes about her hometown. "We're more than just a rural community, which we're portrayed as," said Swanson. "We accept people.... We're tolerant. The people are more verbal now about being tolerant." Dan May, a graduate student from Casper--Shepard's hometown--said that because of Wyoming's small population, 499,000, "you don't get a lot of diversity, so in that sense it made it clear to the people of Wyoming we have diversity, and it's something we need to talk about more." Some people, though, still haven't gotten the message, said construction worker Kevin Young. "People still joke about it," Young said of Shepard's death. "I have heard people make bad comments about it. They're already that way, and it's going to be hard to break them from it."