It’s been nearly 17 years since our son, Matthew, was brutally attacked in an antigay hate crime on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo. The aftermath of Matt’s death and the worldwide attention it received cast a shadow over Laramie and all of Wyoming. It was assumed that its people were inherently homophobic, hateful, and violent. As current and longtime residents, Dennis and I have known this to be untrue — but for the first time since Matt’s death, we are finally seeing definitive proof in Wyoming that the safety and well-being of LGBT people are being addressed and their rights protected.
Earlier this month, the Laramie Nondiscrimination Task Force, a grassroots community organization, successfully lobbied for Laramie’s City Council to pass a bill that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; the first ordinance of its kind to be passed in all of Wyoming.
Dennis and I are thrilled and inspired to see positive change for the LGBT community finally succeed at home. We entered the long-fought and sorely won fight for equality and started the Matthew Shepard Foundation with the hope we could prevent what happened to Matt from happening to others, and to change the hearts and minds of parents and family members to accept their loved ones for who they are. Dennis and I advocated and lobbied for more than a decade to see a change in federal hate-crimes laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. We know change can take time, and we’re proud of those in Laramie who took it upon themselves to do what was right and what was long overdue for a community that is bound by a legacy of hate and brutality.
If he were still with us today, Matt would be among those advocating for this change, for protecting basic civil rights that so many continue to be denied to this day simply for who they love, the color of their skin, or the religion they practice.
But while the progress we are witnessing in Laramie is a victory within Wyoming, it is not a victory for Wyoming. For those living outside Laramie’s city limits, there is still the threat of unemployment, homelessness, and discrimination. There are still people who remain second-class citizens because of the continued inaction of those who were elected to represent their fellow Wyomingites to provide equal protections and civil rights.
Earlier this year, the state of Wyoming had yet another chance to ensure the rights of LGBT citizens were protected with a statewide antidiscrimination bill, but again the measure failed to pass. At the end of last year we saw marriage equality come to Wyoming, but without proper protections, LGBT people can get married one day and fired the next for attempting to change their benefit package to include a spouse. Now, thanks to efforts from civil rights activists and community leaders in Laramie, there’s a place in Wyoming where the potential for that type of discrimination has been defeated.
It is our hope that the citizens of Laramie can serve as an example for not only the rest of Wyoming, but other communities and states that continue to struggle with acceptance. It all starts with those who are brave enough to speak out and share their stories. When Dennis and I began traveling across the country and around the world to share Matt’s story, we met many others who had found the strength within themselves to tell of their own experience, and those who previously held hate in their hearts began listening. To shake the idea of LGBT people being second-class citizens, we have to remind others that we are all human, that we are all together in our communities. By recognizing that LGBT people are not “others,” but our neighbors, teachers, coworkers, and family members, we can come together to erase the ignorance that fuels hatred and violence against the LGBT community. In truth, we are all an “other” to someone. Let’s recognize that and move on.
We have seen this progressive action in Laramie, the place where the intense hatred of a few claimed Matt’s life. We have seen it in Indiana, where business leaders, students, and members of the community come together to defend the LGBT community against unjust laws. We have seen it abroad in places such as Mexico and the Dominican Republic, and most recently in Ireland, where Irish citizens traveled from all over the world to take part in a historic vote to legalize same-sex marriage.
This change starts with conversation — sharing our experiences of triumph, struggle, and loss to change the hearts and minds of others. To some, the actions in Laramie are “better late than never,” but to the rest of Wyoming, to the rest of the country, we say that there’s no better time than now to move forward in achieving equality.